Content originally written for the Let’s Go: USA & Canada Guide by our researcher-writer, Graham Bishai.
Haight Street; store hours vary
Peaking in 1967 with the Summer of Love, this neighborhood was once the center of national attention, as young people flocked here to play music, do drugs, and participate in an unfolding social experiment: the hippie movement. Living by countercultural principles of peace, love, and sharing, these folks rejected consumer capitalism for what they hoped would be a new world order. But alas, capitalism, undefeated, is alive and well, so bring your wallet, cause shit ain’t free. On the stretch of Haight Street, between Buena Vista Park and the Golden Gate Park, you’ll find eclectic vintage and thrift shops, independent bookstores, bars, and even a store whose specialty is socks. Rock fans can pay a visit to the former house of The Grateful Dead, located at 710 Ashbury St. Peruse the array of zany stores with their odds and ends, pop tags at thrift stores, and imagine what it was like here 50 years ago when a new way of thinking rocked the world. Then come back to reality, because that shirt is $10.99.
Prices vary by store; wheelchair accessible
Balmy and Clarion Alleys and Mission Street
Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley, Mission District; www.balmyalley.com/ and clarionalleymuralproject.org/
The Mission District, San Francisco’s most famous Latinx community, is filled with public murals. Balmy and Clarion Alleys are particularly vivid concentrations of this art form. Lying on either end of the the district, Balmy Alley is on the Southern end, not far from the 24th St. BART station, while Clarion is on the northern end, right by the 16th St. BART station. For convenience, try starting at one and ending at the other. Connecting them is Mission Street, the main thoroughfare of the Mission district. Walk along this stretch, filled with restaurants and shops, to get a good idea of the Mission District’s character. Both Balmy and Clarion Alleys are filled with bright, evocative murals packed with social commentary. Clarion is managed by the Clarion Alley Mural Project, which offers guided tours periodically. Balmy is overseen by the Precita Eyes Mural Art Center (2981 24th St.) which gives tours of the alley and murals beyond on Saturdays and Sundays. You can still experience both without tours, however.
Tours $5 at Clarion Alley Mural Project; tours $20, students $10 at Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center, Sa-Su 1:30pm; wheelchair accessible
Intersection of Castro and Market Streets
If they could paint the sky rainbow here, they would. In this historic queer neighborhood, rainbow flags are more common than stop signs. Explore the neighborhood’s prideful array of coffee shops, gay bars, and sex shops, and experience a place where being queer is the norm, not the anomaly. Despite its icon status, the Castro remains a community, and neighbors catch up with each other and talk about the latest episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race on street corners and in checkout lines. See a movie at the ornate Castro Theater, a historic landmark that shows historic and avant garde films. At night, especially on weekends, the area has a thriving BGLTQ+ nightlife scene. If you’re curious about San Fran’s origins as a gay mecca, check out the GLBT History Museum. Whether you wear one or more of the letters in BGLTQ+ or not, you’ll like this place for it’s charm and unapologetic pride in being queer AF. Unless you’re a homophobe. In that case do us all a favor and stay home.
Store prices vary; wheelchair accessible
City Lights Books
261 Columbus Ave.; (415) 362-8193; citylights.com; open daily 10am-12am
Influential throughout the Beat Movement, this bookstore saw freedom of the press tested in a famous court case when it published a book—Howl by Allen Ginsberg—that the government considered obscene. Founded by famous poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, this store is filled with titles on activism, and social justice. It was also the first all-paperback bookstore in the U.S. Peruse its cozy space, spread across three floors, which consists of mainline big titles, as well as rarer ones, including those it has published under its own label. There are periodic readings and talks by authors. The store is quiet, a place of solace, which might be a turnoff for those who aren’t diehard literary fans. You’ll find some cool stuff though, and you’ll certainly learn something.
Prices vary; limited wheelchair accessibility
Graham left behind the stressed-out chaos of Cambridge for the laid back life on the West Coast. A refreshing change of pace, he assumed, until the line for coffee on his first morning took 2 mins longer than he’s used to, and the Northeast nasty jumped out. Starting in Vancouver, Graham meandered south, toning his calves being a pedestrian on San Francisco’s hills and by navigating the monstrosity that is Los Angeles using just his feet and public transit (only resorting to Uber twice!) Graham’s love for the West Coast life only increased as he sat by the Puget Sound in Seattle, sipped kombucha in the crunchy cafes of Portland, climbed into a waterfall in Yosemite and stayed in an abandoned opera house in Death Valley. By the time he hit upper 80s sun of San Diego, buff calves and sun tanned, the words “West Coast, Best Coast,” almost slipped out of his mouth. Identity crisis looming, he figured it was time to go home.