Amid San Francisco’s tantalising parade of temptations, the Ferry Building always manages to hook me in, as a flavourful launch-pad for a city exploratory. For the past 15 years, the 120 year old landmark has not just been a transport hub but bustling marketplace. With its siren-like allure, the emporium of artisanal purveyors spans pastries, coffee, cheeses, juices and chocolate.
Adding to the gorge-fest, there are sit-down restaurants like the splendid Hog Island Oyster Company. Snacking my way through the marketplace, my personal favourites include the delicious gooey cheeses at Cowgirl Creamery, Miette Patisserie and Recchiuti Confections for their lavender and ginger chocolate. Snap up an assortment of goodies for a decadent picnic and make you way to one of the city’s beloved picnic spots.
Alamo Park overlooks the Painted Ladies, while Golden Gate Park’s plethora of eye-grabbers includes the antique carousel and the roaming bison. The herd were originally established to preserve a sense of the old Wild West. If you want to picnic like a local, Dolores Park in the Mission District is a glorified backyard for San Franciscan people-watching, recently refurbished and looking resplendent. If the Californian sun is sparking up proceedings, the local Bi-Rite Creamery is a salivating refuge for a cool-down and a salted caramel ice cream. While you’re in the area, don’t miss the gold-painted fire hydrant on the corner of Church and 20th Streets.
It was the only operable hydrant following the 1906 earthquake that triggered the horrific fires – and it’s credited with saving much of the historic neighbourhood. Every year, this venerable hydrant gets a fresh coat of paint. I also took a wander through the urban wilderness of the Presidio, laced with fabulously undulating trails around the old military sites, en-route to the Walt Disney Family Museum. With walking trails and scenic lookouts galore, The Presidio is where San Francisco began.
Founded at the Golden Gate in 1776, it served as a military fort under the flags of Spain, Mexico and the United States before achieving national park status in 1994.Established by Walt Disney’s eldest daughter, the museum takes you on a riveting journey through his exemplary life, from humble beginnings to starry-eyed heights. I thought it might be a bit schmaltzy, but the museum is intimate, revealing and enthralling.
As you walk through his astonishing life story, not only are you left in awe of his stature as a true entertainment genius, but I drooled over a plethora of behind-the-scenes footage and priceless exhibits, like the original models used to create Disney’s most famous productions, including the game-changing Snow White. Just launched, an addition exhibition devoted to the “Masters of Animation” features an array of never-before-seen personal artwork from classic animated films such as Pinocchio, Bambi, Peter Pan and Sleeping Beauty.
All of Walt’s glinting Oscars are displayed at the museum, too. You can try your hand at animation in the Open Studio and savour some cinematic classics in the Fantasia Theatre, but the climactic attraction is the colossal miniature replica model of Disneyland, Anaheim in the 1960s. Truly wondrous. When the news of Walt Disney’s death ricocheted around the world, newspaper cartoonists captured the mood the best. The iconic cartoon of a tearful Mickey Mouse is still a heart-stealer.
If you’re up for more musing, San Francisco’s museum of the moment is the Museum of Modern Art. (SFMOMA) It now spans ten floors, with over thirty thousand pieces on display to bend your mind. A new addition is the Fisher Collection, which includes a trove of pop art from Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder and Roy Lichtenstein. There’s lots of wacky sculpture from Jeff Koons and the Pritzker Center for Photography boats the largest such space for photography of any USA art museum.
Arachnophobes? Test your will mettle among the gigantic spider sculptures of Louise Bourgeois. Graced with a façade inspired by the mist-draped waters of San Francisco Bay, whether you want a quick one hour dip inside, or happy to devour a whole day, it’s a riveting museum. Whenever I’m San Francisco, I always love staking out movie locations, given the city has amassed a solid reputation as being one of Hollywood biggest back-lots.
With a bit of Googling, why not craft your own locations walking tour, immortalised on the silverscreen? My favourite two haunts, would have to be Mrs Doubtfire’s house, on the corner of Broadway and Steiner, in Pacific Heights. And if you’ve ever wondered where those glass elevators are, that featured in that epic disaster movie, the Towering Inferno, walk into the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero. You’ll be stunned at how they look the same, as if freeze-framed, forty years on. Being a city big on seafood, whether you’re after a cheap clam chowder or something fancier, Swans Oyster Depot in Polk Street is a century old institution, elevated to TripAdvisor royalty.
It’s the holy church of seafood, with just 18 seats set around its counter, meaning there’s always a queue outside. But it’s sure worth the wait. I also enjoyed some sinfully delicious Californian-Indian cuisine at the Taj Campton Place Hotel. With a prime perch on the edge of Union Square, on Stockton St, the century-old building is one of San Francisco’s most prominent landmarks. The hotel was built over a century ago, and is now home to over 100 elegant guestrooms, tastefully appointed with classic European and contemporary design accents.
Request a higher level room for eagle-eye views over the city’s beating heart. I enjoyed a sumptuous dinner at the two-Michelin-starred Taj Campton Place Restaurant – a sure-fire hit with gourmands. Chef Srijith’s perfectly executed and inventive cuisine, combined with thoughtfully paired wines, creates the ultimate fine-dining experience.
Plump for the 9-course degustation menu. Stand-outs include the black cod in green strawberry chutney, curry leaf and ghee; Liberty duck breast dressed in fava greens, morels, rhubarb and cured yolks; and the Maine lobster which is accompanied with cauliflower, green mango and coastal curry sauce. A stupendous experience. The Taj brand of hospitality has cultivated a solid reputation for its warmth, attentiveness, personal care and exclusivity. It’s fancy, without being fusty. Special, but not stilted. It’s a winning roost in San Francisco.
A glittering new landmark, to dwarf the TransAmerica Pyramid is reframing the city skyline. Located on the corner on First and Mission Streets, Salesforce Tower soars over 1000 feet vertically, and the tallest public art installation in the USA sheathes the top of the tower. When I was in town, local artist, Jim Campbell, was putting the finishing touches on his epic electronic sculpture, ablaze in 11,000 lights and giant video screens which will project daily scenes from across the city. Fancy venturing beyond the Golden Gate? It’s iconic international orange paintjob was hardly visible when I moseyed across, because the morning fog was so thick.
Hiring a bike from Fisherman’s Wharf, I jaunted over the bridge to Sausalito, which is such a stunningly swanky waterfront village, home to hundreds of high-end houseboats parked up in floating home marinas. Feeling dog-tired after the biking across the Golden Gate, I completed the circuit by catching a ferry back, to the City by the Bay. www.sftravel.comMany of the top-billing attractions, like the iconic Cable Cars, SFMOMA and a harbour cruise are incorporated into the San Francisco CITYPASS booklet. You’ll save time and money and see the city at your own pace. www.citypass.com