From the multicultural restaurants of San Francisco to the wineries of the Napa Valley, northern California is a food lover’s dream destination
The history of San Francisco is written on its streets, and looking down from the top of Telegraph Hill, it’s family tree is laid bare. There’s Little Italy in the blocks above Columbus Avenue, the colourful streets of Chinatown in and around Grant Avenue, and beyond Divisadero Street, the hippy suburb of Haight-Ashbury that was home to the Beat Generation of the ‘60s. It’s a history best explored up close so don’t be intimidated by the city’s precipitous hills. Step off the iconic cable cars rattling through the streets and walk.
For years Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market was a disused ferry terminal wasting away on the shores of San Francisco Bay. Today the revamped plaza is the city’s premier food destination, overflowing with artisanal bakers, butchers and restaurants. On Saturday mornings the market bustles with fresh farm produce, and it’s a treat to wander around eating and enjoying the harbour views.
Next head to Union Square, which attracts shoppers with its eclectic mix of department and designer stores, and local boutiques in the charming lanes surrounding it. The Museum of Modern Art is a short walk away too. A few blocks up, the real time travelling begins under the set of ornate gates that tower above Grant Avenue. Welcome to Chinatown.
San Francisco is home to the largest Chinatown in North America. The community – which traces its heritage to the California gold rush of the mid-1800s – offers independent schools, newspapers, supermarkets, doctors, temples… and restaurants.
Find fantastic dim sum counters and noodle bars alongside more upmarket Cantonese options: Tommy Toy’s is one of the best in the city. Wander along Waverley Place to the Tin How Temple. Established in 1852, this is the oldest Chinese temple in the city and is an incense-tinged taste of Mainland China on the edge of America.
Keep walking – or take an iconic cable car – down California Street and up across Columbus Avenue where Chinatown morphs into Little Italy in the suburb of North Beach. The lampposts are painted in red, white and green and balsamic vinegar replaces soya sauce in the corner markets.
St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church is a good place to rest tired feet, but allow enough time for a meal across the road at The Stinking Rose, a legendary local restaurant where every dish is laced with garlic. After lunch, tackle the steep stone steps to Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill for some magical views of the city.
If you’re lucky, San Francisco’s notorious fog will stay away long enough for a trip across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge – it’s said that 120 000 cars cross the bridge every day. In the distance, the rocky shores of the infamous prison island Alcatraz loom out of the Pacific.
Take a break from the city and head north, away from the Bay into wine country. There’s a long history of winemaking in the region: Spanish missionaries planted vines in the early 1800s for communion wine, and today the vineyards of Sonoma, Napa and Russian River produce outstanding Pinot Noir, Cabernet and Zinfandel, fondly known as ‘Zin’. It’s this last grape that’s the speciality of Ravenswood Winery, where host Peter Griffith talks visitors through the finer points of ‘Zin’. Although these valleys are home to some of the world’s top wines – Screaming Eagle, Robert Mondavi, Taittinger – the wineries are unpretentious and welcoming, and there are quaint towns scattered between the vineyards, such as Sonoma, which was one of the first ‘Slow Food’ cities in the USA and has some great eateries, galleries and wine cellars.
The town of Napa is perhaps less charming, but has plenty of shops and accommodation, and it makes a good base for exploring the region further north along Highway 29.
There’s no shortage of fine food out here, and nowhere is this truer than St. Helena, perhaps the trendiest town in the Napa Valley with its upmarket boutiques and restaurants. With a few dollars to spend, most visitors are hard-pressed to leave. But the same could be said for anywhere on this corner of the West Coast. Spend a week wandering multicultural San Francisco, or hire a car and head east to Yosemite National Park. The scenic Pacific Coast Highway runs south to Los Angeles and State Parks dot the region. Silicon Valley, Steinbeck Country around Salinas, San Luis Obispo… the list is endless.
Must-do: Cycle from San Francisco to Sausalito across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge then take the ferry back to the city. One of the most famous bridges in the world, about 120 000 cars cross it every day.
Must-eat: Clam chowder served in a sourdough bowl is an institution in San Francisco. Try Boudin’s at Fisherman’s Wharf, also home to the popular Pier 39 where you buy take-away shrimp cocktails from crab vendors.
Must-try: Catch a ride on the city’s historic cable cars; three lines criss-cross the east and central city. A single-fare ticket is about 7USD.
Must-plan: The Napa Valley Wine Train is a great day outing of you have time, winetrain.com
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
GETTING THERE: British Airways and Virgin Atlantic offer daily flights from South Africa to San Francisco via London Heathrow. Visit ba.com or virgin-atlantic.com
GUIDED TOURS: Trafalgar offers guided holidays to the West Coast in the USA, 011 280 8440 or trafalgar.com/sa
VISAS: South African passport holders require a visa to visit the United States. Visit southafrica.usembassy.gov/visas