Go Away! - to San Francisco

If you're going to send the Music Editor off to write a travel piece, there can be few places better suited than San Fran. Luckily, Dave Kerr was taken by the city's various cultural offerings

Feature by Dave Kerr | 09 Aug 2007
  • Golden Gate Bridge

Half cut and leaning out of a cable car as it rattles up Nob Hill, San Francisco, a fly in the mouth or a telling off from the ticket inspector are the realest threats The Skinny can see.

Safety is the issue here, because as surely as the heavy fog obscures the view of the Golden Gate Bridge, too many backpacker guides to San Francisco place an overbearing emphasis on safety. It's that kind of elaborate caution that perpetuates fear, and fear makes for one hell of a crap holiday. So I chose to pay no mind to the paranoid warnings that would have had me locked in the hotel room in a state of catatonic agoraphobia, trembling in fear of the next minor tremor (I'd been sitting in the hotel for precisely five minutes when the first one hit).

San Francisco has its rougher edges, but common sense should see you navigate the city with minimal hassle. A city of copious distractions in terms of culture, ambience and general livability, San Francisco is one of the most celebrated jewels in California's Sunkist crown. Having provided the canvas for the 'Beat' poets, as well as the stomping ground for some of America's most famous protagonists - both real and fictitious - from Frank Bullitt and Dirty Harry to Mark Twain and Allen Ginsberg, Frisco's artistic vibrancy has continued to thrive and diversify. In terms of music, ever-close to the city's pulse, its thrash metal scene and genre jumping hip-hop set have come to earn their places in the history books in recent years.

The Rock, however, brings perhaps the most vividly documented details of the city's legacy to life. Upon docking at Alcatraz, it seems obvious that the most compelling tours must take place during the dawn and dusk trips. Throughout the day, half hourly ferries bring honorary cons to the island to serve a few hours hard time, so come lunchtime the darkened halls are densely populated. But this is the place 'Birdman' biographer Thomas E. Gaddis famously dubbed "the black molar in the jawbone of the United States prison system", and walking the island with the accompaniment of a self-operated audio guide - provided by a range of brutally truthful ex-prisoners and guards - feels as close to achieving tangible contact with history as it gets.

Back on the mainland, it's almost impossible to resist the lure of Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf. It is a bustling coastal row marketplace rammed with street entertainers, fresh food (apparently a rarity in any US state), and an aquarium overrun with native sea lions, sharks, and bat rays. There's also some bloke persistently trying to flog us a guitar signed by Jack Nicholson. It's easy enough to burn half a day mulling around the 45 acre complex - brew in one hand and some manner of battered poisson in the other. Just kick back by the Bay and you'll come close to dismissing the parallel delicacy of a can of Strike Cola and a haddock supper in the car at Anstruther Harbour.

San Francisco is easy to get around. To get to the centre of the city from the Wharf you have the choice of going on foot, by cable car along the Powell-Mason line from Bay Street, or jumping on the cheap and reliable bus service which operates throughout.

But first a vital pit stop is the North Beach area, sandwiched between the Wharf and Chinatown. Still in evidence here are remnants of the 1950s Beatnik era. Various dedicated local book shops still operate within reasonable prices and the famed Caffe Trieste – "the West Coast's first espresso coffee house," not to mention onetime haunt of Francis Ford Coppola and Jack Kerouac - continues to pour a mean cuppa joe and offers a shrine of sorts to the literary malcontents it is believed to have been a hub for.

Still thirsty? On a corner about halfway down Columbus Avenue sits a fairly old fashioned looking microbrewery imaginatively christened the 'San Francisco Brewing Company'. A few pale ales (Albatross comes highly recommended) by the roadside and you're all set for a stagger through the picturesque Chinatown – the largest outside Asia – which offers up the kind of tea houses and restaurants you'd expect to find in the Far East, not the Far West.

By now you'll have got the idea: San Francisco is quite the cultural microcosm. Do the homework before you go, by all means. But the only way to tackle the old dog is to fly by the seat of your pants once you get there. Just try not to let those wee quakes worry you.

Getting Away:
Flights to San Francisco from the UK vary wildly in price according to season; see expedia.co.uk for the latest deals. Flights to San Francisco from within the US are generally quite cheap. If travelling from surrounding cities such as S