San Francisco is a seductive city of distinctive neighbouroods, cheek-by-howl, bursting with pride, a personality and perky peculiarities. No matter how many times you visited the great Bay City, there’s always something new to stimulate the senses, or worthy of a deeper dive. If you’ve ticked off the staple headliners around town an infatuating neighbourhood well worth an extended forage is North Beach, spilling forth with history, colour and intrigue.
It’s the Little Italy of San Fran, half way between Fisherman’s Wharf and downtown. It’s ripe for exploration, over-run with loads of novel attractions, incredible heritage and a bohemian ethos. But its essential calling-card is the fact that generations of Italian-American family-run businesses have seeded its streets with the most fabulous suite of shops, delis, bakeries and restaurants.
They also get the gold star for being so community-minded. This highly inter-connected neighbourhood will deftly mobilise residents at a time of need, whether it’s a business that falling on hard times, or an appeal to the Vatican to re-open a mothballed century-old Catholic Church, which they successfully did. One of the starring attractions is the City Lights Bookstore, a seventy year old three-storeyed colossus.
The chap who helped establish it, Lawrence Ferengetti can still be seen still working behind the counter at 100 years of age. And that’s a common narrative in North Beach; age-old shops and eateries, owned and operated by the same family for nearly a century. You’ll definitely want to go to Café Trieste on Columbus Ave, where so much movie history awaits. Francis Ford Coppalla wrote most of The Godfather, over several hundred cups of coffee here.
A lot of the Beat generation writers like Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg would meet here. Around the corner, Café Zoetrope, owned by Ford Coppola. It’s packed with his movie memorabilia, and its part of the Sentinel Building, a survivor of the great quake – very much San Fran’s answer to New York’s flat-iron building. His nephew, Nicholas Cage, is often in the café chatting to patrons. Don’t miss the century-old Victoria Pastry Company for the best canoli in town, and the century-old Liguria Bakery for their focaccia-only breads, cooked in traditional Italian wood fired ovens.
The 80 year old Stella Pastry café does the most outrageously desserts, like their trademarked Scaripantina Cake, which is a heaped pile of custard, sponge, marsala, sherry and rum. If you like your garlic, follow your nose to The Stinking Rose. This flamboyantly novel restaurant adorns absolutely everything in garlic, from the salt and pepper, to the staggering décor of festive murals, festooned in thousands of garlic bulbs. Draped across the ceiling, the world’s longest garlic braid. It’s garlic overload. In fact you could say that this is a restaurant that seasons their garlic with food.
In a neighbourhood groaning with aromatic delis, the old-school Molinari’s Deli is an absolute classic, with a virtually carnival atmosphere exuding from this store. I have a major soft-spot for Italian ceramics and you will not find a better gallery of exquisite Italian ceramics than at Biordi. Operating since 1946, the owner, Deborah Baldini, was fresh back from the mother country with a delicious array of new ornaments and art pieces. I could have bought up the whole shop. I discovered many of these North Beach from joining a flavourful foodie walking tour with Local Tastes of the City Tours. Highly recommended! www.sffoodtour.com
Beyond North Beach, I headed to the Audium, the only theatre of its kind in the world which has actually been operating for years. The small theatre runs regular performances, whereby you’re in complete darkness and the theatre’s 176 speakers bathe you in sounds that move past, over and under you. It’s all about the primal essence of sound, it’s very trippy, transporting, even meditative.
If you want to grab a completely different take on the Golden Gate Bridge, take the coastal trail from Land’s End lookout, which leads you around the sandstone bluffs and pounding Pacific to China Beach and the Presidio, for the most panoramic bridge perspective, facing the ocean. It’s the flipside view to the perspective the world usually fawns over and is remarkably unpeopled. You can actually get to the Land’s End lookout on the Big Nus Tour. www.bigbustours.com
On the north side of the bridge, there’s also great trails on Marin Headlands, one of the world’s biggest breeding sites for great white sharks. While I was there, there were nearly a dozen great whites, stationary under the bridge, hunting in a pack, waiting for the sea lions to take their afternoon swim out into the ocean. How primal is that! These cunning killing machines had worked out what time the sea lions venture out from Fisherman’s Wharf. As an aside, that famous San Fran fog, which dreamily drifts through the bridge or swaddles it in a thick blanket, like it’s own life force, even has its own Facebook page: Karl the Fog. How very San Fran. For more sightseeing tips on making the most of your time in this radiantly diverse city, head to the official website. www.sftravel.com
Where to stay? Spoil yourself and enjoy a splurge at The Palace Hotel, which isn’t just a hospitality legend, but an official city landmark. As San Francisco’s oldest hotel, splendidly located near Union Square, this grand dame has a storied past since first opening in 1875. Fire destroyed the original structure after the 1906 earthquake, but three years later, the current building opened to great fanfare, designed to rival the most palatial establishments in Europe.
Needless to say, this gilded hotel generously oozes with historical anecdotes, but the opulent surroundings are what slayed me in jaw-dropped wonder. Don’t miss the monumental mural of the Pied Piper, in the eponymously named bar, painted for the hotel’s re-opening by Maxfield Parrish. But the piece de resistance is undeniably the sublime, glass-domed roof of the Garden Court Lounge. Originally constructed as the hotel’s carriage entrance, it was later repurposed as the dining room, an epic space of drama and splendour. With a soaring stained-glass ceiling, marble columns and floors, lit by mammoth Austrian crystal chandeliers, the Garden Court lavishly summons San Francisco’s Age of Elegance.
For over a century, the Garden Court Lounge has been THE place to enjoy afternoon tea. Even if you’re not staying in-house, it’s a delicious way to soak up the majesty of the hotel, over the fine china and silver service, brimming with delicate tea sandwiches and scones. If you want a light bite when dining, plump for the Green Goddess Salad, a signature dish at the Palace, that has transcended decades. Don’t forget to try our original Green Goddess Salad while dining at the Garden Court. When the original recipe was created, limited access to fresh produce meant dressing was originally served with shredded iceberg lettuce, canned vegetables and a choice of chicken, shrimp or crab.
Today, however, the dish has evolved to include farm fresh mixed baby greens, fresh locally grown California vegetables and dungeness crab meat. Contemporary comfort blends seamlessly at this unforgettable Beaux-Arts hotel, where timeless antiques merge with ultra-modern amenities and impeccable service. It’s fabulous fun perusing the time-honoured art pieces, draping the public areas, like the majestic throne Hawaii’s King Kalakaua gifted to the hotel in appreciation for the sparkling service he received.
The Palace hosts complimentary tours of the building; enquire at the main lobby for tour times. For a truly magical San Francisco city break, check out the range of special accommodation deals and book direct at www.sfpalace.com
I flew with United Airlines, who offer non-stop services between Auckland and San Francisco. Premium Plus is United’s new and improved Premium Economy offering. The seats are designed to be more comfortable than those in Economy, with extended recline and definitely more room for legs and elbows.
You also get Saks Fifth Avenue bedding (a pillow and soft, woollen blanket) and slippers, and an amenity kit with socks, eye mask, ear plugs, dental kit and Sunday Riley hand cream and lip balm. Along with a 13-inch seatback touchscreen and noise cancelling headphones, premium passengers get an enhanced food selection too, elegantly served on proper plates with metal cutlery and linen napkins. Whatever class of travel you choose, United serves up a vast library of movie, TV, audio and games channels available to watch on the seatback TVs or on personal devices using the United app. Plus you can order up United wifi on many flights. www.united.com