"Only in San Francisco" is a term that's spoken in either a positive tone, with a warm smile and a beat of the heart, or a pejorative one, accompanied by an intolerant eye roll. Today, a few days after the Bay Area celebrated the 75th birthday of the Golden Gate Bridge, I'm feeling the love for my adopted home. So for any of you planning a visit, here are five of my favorite "only in San Francisco" things to do (in no particular order of preference).
1. See a movie at the Castro Theatre.
It's a 1922 neighborhood, single-screen movie palace that still shows films most every night--usually of the vintage and independent variety--and still has a guy playing the Wurlitzer organ before screenings. Do you have one of those in your town? I thought not.
I've seen everything here from the sing-a-long versions of Grease and The Sound of Music to Up in 3D to countless film noirs to Fun in Boys' Shorts, a staple of the annual Frameline gay and lesbian film festival. At the Castro, you're part of a community, not just an audience member--and it's OK to hiss the villain on screen, if not expected. Tip: Before the show, smuggle in a freshly baked treat from Hot Cookie, a few doors up the street.
|The Castro Theatre|
2. Check out the naked guys.
The Castro is San Francisco's--if not the world's--main 'gayborhood.' In recent years, it's also become home to a tiny minority of nudists (in which "tiny" refers to their membership ranks, not necessarily their "members"). Mostly guys, mostly older, mostly not physically attractive, the clotheless contingent walks around the neighborhood as casually as if they were going grocery shopping. (Imagine them in the produce aisle, carefully selecting cucumbers.)
The 'naked guys' also congregate in the public parklet across from that staple of middle America, Pottery Barn. Sometimes, the Creme Brulee Cart sets up shop nearby, though I think a hot dog stand would be more appropriate.
Oddly enough, public nudity isn't a crime here (unless something lewd is occurring), though a citizen could make a beef about it if he or she wanted to. Do I love seeing these guys naked in public? The truth is, no. But I love what they represent: freedom and lack of shame. Here, in one of the country's most liberal cities, you can be who you truly are--and you can do it with pride. Tip: I've heard some of the naked guys will pose for pictures with you (if you ask nicely, of course). Won't that be something to show your friends back home?
3. Ride a vintage streetcar.
I'm not talking about the cable car. I'm talking about hopping aboard one of the many mid-20th century streetcars from cities around the country--and some from abroad. (The loud orange trolley cars are from Milan.) Here again, this is where San Francisco goes against the grain. These cars had been cast aside, considered archaic by cities like Boston. San Francisco bought and restored them and now runs a fleet of them along Market Street, the Embarcadero, and a few other above-ground rail lines. To my knowledge, no other city has amassed such a collection of trolley cars. Tip: You can ride a vintage trolley to the Castro, if you're dying to see a movie and public nudity. And if you're lucky, you might even get to ride NewOrleans' streetcar named desire.
|Vintage streetcar in San Francisco|
4. Ride the California Street cable car.
I sensed your disappointment when I wrote about streetcars, not cable cars. Of course you must ride a cable car when you're in San Francisco. To many people, it's the definition of an "only in San Francisco" experience, as no other city in the world still operates cable cars.
But don't do what every other tourist does and wait in the interminable lines at the Powell Street cable car turnaround. Instead, jump onto a cable car at either the top of California Street (at Van Ness Avenue) or at the bottom, near the Hyatt Regency on Market Street (not far from the Ferry Building). For some odd reason, the California Street cable car carries far fewer riders, so you'll probably be able to board without waiting.
And frankly, I like the views better on this route. Along the way, you'll pass the financial district, Chinatown, and Nob Hill landmarks. And you'll go up or down some steep hills, depending upon where you board--which is, in itself, another great San Francisco experience. Tip: Fares at most times are $6 each way (with no transfers), which can you pay the conductor. Try to have the exact fare, if possible. If you plan to ride a cable car more than three times in a day or ride other local buses or trains, get the $14 day pass (which the conductor will also sell you).
|California Street cable car|
5. Eat a hamburger at Zuni.
I know what you're thinking: You can eat a hamburger anywhere. But Zuni is and always has been, practically from the moment it opened, a quintessential San Francisco restaurant. Just about everyone I know who lives here loves it. You'll see all types at Zuni, from local politicians to leather queens (sometimes they're one and the same) to film directors. I once spotted cult film director John Waters having dinner here, went over, introduced myself, and enjoyed a brief chat with him. (He's as funny in person as you'd expect.)
I almost always take out-of-towners here, who uniformly love it. Which brings another Zuni story to mind. Years ago, Nick and I brought visiting relatives of his from Alabama, a conservative but sweet couple of retirement age, to Zuni for lunch. They sat with their backs to the huge windows that look out onto Market Street, with Nick and I facing the windows. At one point, a trickle of leather queens in full regalia began parading by, including an unusually short man chain-linked to an unusually tall one. The trickle soon turned into a flood, as I realized that it was time for the annual Folsom Street Fair, a celebration of all things leather and kink. Nick and I struggled to keep from reacting as his relatives enjoyed their lunch, completely unaware of the parade going on behind him.
Oh yes, the hamburger! I almost forgot. The Zuni burger is the bomb. Zuni mixes the meat with salt and lets it sit (refrigerated) for 18 to 24 hours. Then they cook it just to your liking, throw on some Gruyere cheese if you want, and serve it on fresh focaccia bread. Order it with the shoestring fries and you'll soon be smacking your lips double-time. Tip: You can only order the burger at lunch or after 10 p.m.
Now it's your turn. What are your favorite "only in San Francisco" experiences?