Meet the trendy neighbours

Key changes ... a musician at the Mission.
Key changes ... a musician at the Mission. Photo: Alamy

Beyond San Francisco's hotspots, Ben Groundwater finds Latino culture, boutique shopping and hipsters at play.

"Do you guys like coffee?" the optometrist asks, peering over her stylish frames as she packs up a box.

It's nine in the morning - of course we like coffee. I don't want to sound grumpy, though, because she's just being friendly. Another stylish, friendly person in a stylish, friendly neighbourhood. Typical.

A cafe in Sausalito, San Francisco.
A cafe in Sausalito, San Francisco. Photo: Alamy

"Yeah, for sure," I reply.

"Well, you gotta go to Blue Bottle around the corner," she says, running a credit card through the machine, flashing arms littered with bright tattoos. "They do the best coffee in the city, man."

She smiles and hands over our bag. Best coffee in the city? That sounds worth investigating.

A Sausalito house.
A Sausalito house. Photo: AFP

At least its location makes sense. Hayes Valley is a small pocket of San Francisco that could easily be overlooked in favour of the city's more tourist-friendly attractions, such as Haight-Ashbury or Fisherman's Wharf. And its residents wouldn't want it any other way.

It's cool here, in the way that the actress Zooey Deschanel is cool. It has a quirky charm to it.

There's none of the strung-out madness of the hippie-filled Haight, none of the touristic tackiness of the wharf. This is a place where people come to live rather than just visit.

It's a boutique sort of suburb where the little things are done well, whether that's a clothing store or a stylish optometrist shop or a food stand or, you assume, a cup of coffee. And it's not like there's a shortage of places to get one.

Today the cafes that line streets such as Hayes and Laguna are packed with diners. There's a boulangerie on one corner - it's overflowing with people who look like they bought their frames from the trendy store we just walked out of, and their clothes from the expensive boutiques that surround it.

These are San Francisco's trendsetters. You know all of those American fads that you've read about on hipster blog sites? They're happening right now in Hayes Valley.

There are food trucks that line the streets at night, dishing up incongruously gourmet cuisine from the windows of vans. There are bike-hire shops. Small, disused spaces have become community vegetable gardens; car parks morph into German-style beer gardens at night.

Blue Bottle, alleged home of the city's best coffee, is down an alley that would be a no-go zone in some areas of San Francisco. In Hayes Valley, however, there are no beggars or shady characters slinking around, just a line of chino-wearing hipsters waiting for their caffeine fix.

There's espresso on the menu. Proper espresso. There's also the filter coffee that Americans are bizarrely obsessed with, but you can get a flat white if you want one. It's brewed from fair-trade beans, of course, and served in a biodegradable cup with a recycled lid that can be composted. And, mercifully, it might really be the best coffee in the city.

It's the perfect way to round off the morning because, now, there are more of San Francisco's local favourites to explore.

Is there a better place in the world for people watching than San Francisco? Taking the bus across town this afternoon is a tourist attraction in itself. At a wild guess, you could say something like 80 per cent of San Fran inhabitants are barking mad - from the panhandlers to the hippies to the street performers and the normal old residents - which makes for some interesting encounters.

Two stops into my ride the bus is boarded by a well-dressed African-American man who almost immediately launches into a screaming tirade at the bus driver - in French. He then pulls a packet of cheese out of his blazer and starts hurling slices at the windscreen. A couple of stops later he hits the button and gets off. No one blinks.

That's a bizarre introduction to the Mission, where things are a little different to Hayes Valley, although no less enjoyable. It's not, ostensibly, a place of insane francophone commuters but San Francisco's centre of Latino culture.

There are no boulangeries here, no boutique frame stores or community vegetable gardens. Things seem a little edgier in the Mission, a little more interesting. Many of the buildings are covered in Diego Rivera-inspired murals and street art. It's a riot of visual interest.

The Mission has long been San Francisco's hub of all things Latino, ever since Mexican immigrants began moving in after World War II. Despite the inevitable gentrification, the area is still very much a little pocket of Central America - even the climate is warmer than the rest of the city thanks to the Mission's protected, central location.

There are beggars on the streets here but there are also soapbox speakers, men proclaiming the way of the Lord in harried Spanish, kids kicking footballs, families heading out to church, men standing around hotted-up cars. It's buzzing with a sense of community.

The restaurants in the Mission don't sell hamburgers and fries - they sell tacos and salsa. A restaurant named El Salvador specialises in pupusas, the eponymous country's traditional stuffed-bread dish.

There are Guatemalan restaurants just down the street, plus Nicaraguan and Colombian. You won't find any of San Francisco's famous seafood chowder - but that's the point. This is different.

And it's not the only one. Just across the bay in Sausalito, things are different again. It's not edgy; it's perfect. Sausalito is the epitome of "Main Street USA" - a community that almost seems too flawless, like the whole suburb was torn off the set of a Disney film and placed down by San Francisco Bay.

The town is everything Fisherman's Wharf would be without the busloads of tourists - a quiet, charming place where you can chew on saltwater taffy down by the boardwalk, or drink coffee in one of the small cafes that face across the bay to San Francisco.

On a sunny day there are artists out plying their trade, their works set up outside pastel-coloured buildings perched on stilts above clear blue water. It's a lovely area but ... maybe too lovely after a while.

Too perfect. It makes you want to get back to somewhere with more of an edge, which is why I'm soon aboard San Francisco's BART train system and heading across the bay towards Berkeley.

Now here is an area far removed from Sausalito's upmarket charm. It's like Hayes Valley but without the hipsters.

In their place are shabby students, leather-jacketed punks, those from the alternative set who've helped create the left-wing, liberal vibe of an area that was central to the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s.

The bars are filled with students who probably should be studying and the streets are lined with record stores owned by people who probably should have real jobs.

The pace is slow - Berkeley is the kind of town that feels as if it woke up late with a hangover, rather than got up early to get to the office.

Visitors can wander through the university campus, which is an attraction in itself (student-led tours are held daily), or just soak up the atmosphere, enjoy the feeling of being one of the few tourists in a lesser-known pocket of one of the world's great cities.

Or just head to a cafe and relax. The coffee's pretty good here, too.

The writer travelled as a guest of Visit California.

 

Trip notes

Getting there

Virgin Australia flies daily from Sydney to Los Angeles, with connections to San Francisco. 13 67 89, virginaustralia.com.

Staying there

The Radisson at Fisherman's Wharf is centrally located for exploring the city. Rooms start from $US159 ($155) a night. radisson.com.

Getting around

The best way to get around San Francisco is with a CityPass, which entitles the holder to unlimited travel on all city trolleys, buses and cable cars, plus entry into selected museums and galleries. A seven-day pass costs $69 for adults, $39 for children. citypass.com/san-francisco.

More information

visitcalifornia.com.au

 

Celebrate the Golden Gate Bridge's 75th birthday

Four ways to enjoy one of the world's most famous structures in its anniversary year.

1 By bike Head down to Fisherman's Wharf and call in to Blazing Saddles, where you can hire a pushbike that, with a little effort on your part, will get you all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. There are paths specifically for bikes, so you'll feel safe cruising across the bay and towards Sausalito. From $US32 a day, blazingsaddles.com.

2 By car Not just any car — splash out on a convertible and you'll be seeing the bridge in style, with the top down as you roar underneath its pillars. Once over the bridge, follow the winding roads out to Point Bonita Lighthouse to explore this beautifully rugged coastline. Prices vary depending on your car; dollar.com.

3 By helicopter San Francisco Helicopters runs joy flights over the city that begin in Sausalito and end at the international airport. The tour will take in Alcatraz and the Downtown area but the highlight is a gut-testing swoop underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, before climbing high to take in a unique view of the traffic below. Costs $US175 ($171), sfhelicopters.com.

4 By boat With San Francisco preparing to host the 2013 America's Cup, there's no better time to get out on USA 76, a former cup racer, to see what it's all about. Doesn't hurt that the maxi also takes a sail under the bridge, combining two of San Fran's great attractions into one outing. Costs $US140, acsailingsf.com.

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