Sunday 20 January 2019

Bay City roller

IT was just like a scene from the classic car-chase movie Bullit: racing down the crooked and crazy Lombard Street, roaring down the cable car streets of San Francisco, whizzing past jaw-dropped spectators. Except I was in a 50cc-engined tourist GoCar, and I'm no Steve McQueen.

But the handsome actor didn't have satnav, nor did he enjoy the sights of the Bay City as I did on a cool, new tourism idea -- little cars with motorbike engines that follow tourist trails around one of America's most European of cities.

The GoCar is fun, it's small and a little bit crazy -- just like San Francisco. Compact, with great transport links and walkable streets, it's like a mini New York with a laidback vibe. Gays, hippies, DotCom millionaires -- they've all made the Pacific city their home, and it's easy to see why.

My hotel was in the heart of downtown, just around the corner from bustling Union Square.

Twenty years ago, when I last visited, it was a bit of a kip, but it has been gentrified and is now home to some of the city's top stores, with names like Macy's, Saks and Tiffany. Still, do keep your wits about you as the streets do attract the crazies and it's up there with Dublin for the Tramp Capital of the World title.

Like any good urban centre, it's a place of diverse neighbourhoods. The easiest way to appreciate just how small a place it is, is to take a tour from Union Square with the likes of Open Top Sightseeing. Simply jump on and jump off wherever takes your fancy, be it touristy Fisherman's Wharf, posh Nob Hill or funky SoMa.

North Beach is one of the best areas for hanging out and the city's own Little Italy is complete with trendy cafes (Francis Ford Coppola wrote The Godfather screenplay here) and great music bars such as The Saloon.

Within a few blocks, Italy gives way to the Orient in America's biggest Chinatown outside of Manhattan, and it's the place to sample some dim sum. A few more blocks and the East gives way to West again as you're back in the Downtown financial district -- all in a short drive.

For a groovy experience, you could go all hippy and take a trip, man, on the Magic Bus, a 90-minute journey through time to the '60s.

San Francisco was Ground Zero for the Summer of Love in '67 with soap and job-dodging teenagers wearing flowers in their hair and espousing peace.

The bus tour (complete with bubbles flying out behind it) will bring you to the heart of music areas like Haight Ashbury (check out the Jefferson Airplane house, where the Grateful Dead hung out) and Fillmore (the epicentre of the African-American jazz and blues scene).

If you want to find out everything you need to know about how nice free love was in the '60s, and discover how a concert venue manager got crushed to death on top of his stripper girlfriend in more recent times, look no further.


Strangely though, the number one attraction here is one of the tackiest, Fisherman's Wharf, the local equivalent of Temple Bar. Filled with souvenir shops and tourist hicks from out of town, locals wouldn't be seen dead here.

But it's still worth a visit, for the bay views, street life energy and, at the very least, the trip to Alcatraz. A short boat ride away, The Rock is an ominous outcrop, and, well, captivating. Closed in 1963, it's still an eerie place and you'll be glad that you can reopen the cell door after you get the obligatory behind-bars shot of yourself.

If you've got kids in town, the half-billion dollar California Academy of Sciences is a must-see. Home to the nation's largest planetarium, its 90ft-tall dome even offers live Nasa feeds.

Its aquarium is home to 4,000 fish and 1,500 colonies of living coral. The amazing four-storey rainforest takes visitors along a spiral walkway from ground level to above the bird-filled tree canopy.

For something more adult, the Castro gay district is worth checking out. While some of the scene can get a bit hot and heavy, there are more mixed spots for straight guys (like me) and gals too.

Chow Restaurant is a great neighbourhood eatery in a city filled with thousands of restaurants -- many outstanding -- the food, from steaks and burgers to salads and homemade desserts, is all organic and the service comes with a smile.

Two doors down is a gay sports pub, the Pilsner Inn, with a decent patio area (and al fresco dining and drinking is unusual in what can be a chilly city).

And that's the beauty of this city. It's an eclectic mix, with something for all ages. You can understand why Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco. Even if it wasn't the Castro.

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