It’s time for a million-dollar travel question: what makes an outstanding walking city? As someone who prefers to sightsee on foot, I’ve pondered this puzzle for years. The city must be compact, obviously. Unique architecture doesn’t hurt, neither does a defining monument or two. Most importantly, the city has to cultivate a fantasy – and as a writer with a degree in gender studies, there is one city in particular that I fall in love with every single time I visit.
I know this is brazen (and to New Yorkers, controversial), but I think San Francisco is the best walking city in all of North America. In fact, I think it rivals classic old world strolling haunts like Paris and Istanbul. Even though the city’s gentrification problem is only about a decade old, San Francisco has always been classically pretty thanks to the shiny blue waters of the Bay and Pacific Ocean. Now, this is what I consider to be key to San Francisco’s success as a top walking metropolis. No matter where you are in downtown San Francisco, you never know what steep hill will lead to world-class views of the water, the Golden Gate Bridge, or one of the city’s many other icons.
San Francisco truly is a city of one thousand vistas, and whenever I visit, I ignore my exhausted legs begging for a break and climb up every hill I can to try to capture one of the many amazing views. Sure, some are let-downs, but then there are moments like the one I captured below:
San Francisco has the power to make travelers feel like they are on top of the world, and those lucky enough to snag a blue sky day will be able to see the seamless way in which the city has been built into the region’s topography. Houses and streets continue over hills with no disruption; for once, an urban space constructed itself around nature, as opposed to those that force change on nature to fit ever-expanding development.
Perhaps this is true with California as a whole, but pleasant weather year-round means that flaneurs can walk the streets of California just as well in February as they can in August. Not only does this mean no snow, but San Francisco’s flora and fauna are on full display twelve months a year. No unfortunate brown, bare, and dead trees here, which perfectly coordinates with San Francisco’s popular colorful houses – a trait that I unabashedly adore. Again, I feel like the city designed itself to match the natural landscape, unlike Washington, D.C., my home city for three years that, in the 1970’s, bought cement like it was going out of business (unfortunately, they didn’t think about cement going out of style, but alas).
Speaking of charming architecture, San Francisco more than makes up for its soulless high-rises in the financial district with a cohesive housing style that has become one of the city’s major icons. Simply strolling the hilly streets of Pacific Heights or Russian Hill just to admire the city’s residences makes for one of my preferred ways to enjoy San Francisco.
As I meandered the streets of San Francisco for five wonderful days in February 2016, I couldn’t help but notice the gentrification occurring right in front of my eyes. Hardly a happy subject, I know, but I can’t talk about San Francisco without mentioning the plague that currently threatens its very existence. Longtime residents of San Francisco, largely low-wage blue collar workers in Hispanic and black communities, find themselves at the mercy of “slumlords” who employ every tactic in the sleazy real estate handbook to force them out of their rent-controlled apartments to make way for higher paying yuppies with Silicon Valley money. Chinatown, a vibrant and diverse neighborhood just fifteen minutes from the snooze-inducing and bland Union Square, is a holdout in the battle for the spirit of the city. Here, I discovered, visitors can enjoy a taste of a San Francisco standing strong against gentrification.
The Mission, San Francisco’s historically Hispanic neighborhood, also offers a slice of authentically diverse urban life, even if the community is slowly changing due to the unfortunate g-word. Spanish-style churches and bakeries line the streets of one of my favorite spots in the city.
Here’s something cool about San Francisco that you might not know: the city is filled with hearts. And I don’t just mean the hearts of travelers who have been falling in love with the city by the Bay for a century. A few years ago, artists decorated a series of massive hearts that were later auctioned off for charity – and many have been permanently placed in San Francisco for the public’s enjoyment. Trying to discover them is a traveler’s scavenger hunt. I spent five days in the city and only found three (many leads led to private residences or businesses that did not publicly display the heart), but I must say that the search makes for one heck of a citywide walking tour.
And, for a final Easter egg, even the sidewalks of San Francisco aren’t entirely immune from splashes of color and art:
I honestly believe that walking cities are best explored and understood without a guide or tour group. A map can be helpful, but only refer to it when absolutely necessary. There’s so much more to San Francisco than the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf, and while the city’s top sights are undoubtedly fun, the soul is found in the backstreets. That these same streets are currently a battleground against gentrification makes a visit all the more interesting and urgent.