I am fascinated by culture and learning about the cultures of the places that I travel to. As someone who pays close attention to detail, I tend to take note of the little things that make certain cultures different from my own.
I recently traveled to San Francisco and noticed a lot of cultural differences in this city.
Here are my observations:
The weather is unpredictable and be completely different depending on the neighbourhood you’re in or street corner you’re standing on – San Francisco does not typically experience warm weather in the summer months. In fact, their warmer weather occurs in September. I happened to be there during, what they would consider to be, a very hot few days (around 24-25 degree Celsius). What I noticed in SF, is that the weather changes unpredictably throughout the course of the day (you will need a jacket in the morning and evening, but will be stripping down to a t-shirt once you start climbing hills and then will need a jacket again at the top of the hill because it’s so windy)! The weather is also significantly different, depending on what neighbourhood you are in (warmer in the Mission, cooler along the water) and even what street corner you’re standing on! One street might be warm, but the next street over could be windy and chilly. When you go out for the day, you should wear layers (tank top/t-shirt, sweater/cardigan and jacket) so that you can easily change depending on your location in the city and on what kind of activity you are doing (hiking up steep hills). Don’t even bother looking at the weather forecast for the day because guaranteed, it will be nothing like that and will change constantly throughout the day.
The people are interesting – You will likely meet and observe some interesting characters of people. Like maybe those two men walking completely naked down Haight Street, that cashier processing your payment at a pipe/smoke shop on Haight who is completely stoned, that man you meet in the alley full of murals who tells you all about the history of the murals, the young homeless-looking backpacker on Haight who is holding his hand out with a clump of weed and openly trying to sell it to passers by, or that homeless woman you meet in another muraled alley who tells you what she believes her key to happiness is, or the multitude of homeless people who can be found sleeping just about anywhere, or the woman on the bus who is loudly yelling gibberish nonsense but not directed at anyone in particular, and many more that I’m sure you will encounter!
There are not many children in San Francisco – I actually didn’t even notice this until I returned home and started thinking more about it. The only place I saw children, was on the cable cars and near Fisherman’s Wharf (touristy area) and they were more than likely tourists and not residents. I did see one child on a MUNI bus who was singing her heart out to that popular song in the movie Frozen! But other than that, I don’t remember seeing any children in the Mission District, where I was staying, or in many of the other neighbourhoods (Haight-Ashbury, Castro, etc.). There are a lot of young people (teens, 20 and 30-somethings) but not a lot of kids.
Every neighbourhood is known for having certain qualities – The Mission District is known as the Latino neighbourhood where you can find taquerias and markets on every corner, lots of murals everywhere, crime and a grittier atmosphere. The Castro is known as being the gay neighbourhood. Here you will find rainbow coloured crosswalks at the corners of 18th Street and Castro, rainbow flags hanging from people’s houses and in local shop windows, and a large independent theatre (Castro Theatre). Pacific Heights is known as the rich neighbourhood, with huge mansions perched on top of the hilly landscape. Haight-Ashbury is known as being the hippie, alternative lifestyle neighbourhood. You will see people smoking marijuana on the streets openly (despite it actually being illegal in California), naked men walking down the sidewalk, tattoo and smoke shops everywhere, and the iconic intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets, where young people gathered in in the 60s. There is so much variety that can be found in each neighbourhood of SF and they are all so different and unique.
Brunch is a big deal – San Franciscans love brunch. We went to the restaurant Gracias Madre for brunch and it was packed! It’s the perfect time to go for a mimosa or two.
SF is very bike-friendly – There are designated bike lanes on most streets and drivers are actually courteous and respectful of bikers. This is a big difference from Winnipeg (where I live), where there are no bike lanes and bikers are routinely hit by cars who are not paying attention.
There are gorgeous colourful Victorian houses with detailed architecture – No matter where you go in San Francisco, you will find unique and beautiful Victorian houses. I loved wandering through the different and diverse neighbourhoods, and checking out the houses and how the locals live. Neighbourhoods like The Castro, Mission District, Noe Valley and Haight-Ashbury have the best and most colourful Victorians!
Public transportation is easy to use and convenient – If you lived in SF, owning a car would probably not be the best idea. There is never any street parking and the hourly rates in some parking lots are upwards of $6 USD per hour! Good thing the public transport system in SF is extensive, relatively cheap and convenient. They have a lot of options including the MUNI city buses, the MUNI trains, the BART underground subway train, the MUNI historic streetcars and the slower moving classic cable cars. Uber and Lyft are very popular in SF, as is Zipcar, a car sharing service. Uber and Lyft are phone apps that facilitate ridesharing, by connecting those who need a ride with drivers who have a car. There are many ways to get around in SF without having a car.
It is easy to experience nature in and around San Francisco – Wherever you are in the city, you are probably never too far from a park or the water. The landscape is gorgeous and there are beautiful parks in almost every neighbourhood. The Golden Gate Park is the largest, with over 1,000 acres! There are the Mission Dolores Park, Buena Vista Park, Alamo Square, Alta Vista, Corona Heights, Twin Peaks, Bernel Heights, and many more. Stunning panoramic views of the entire city can be found in many of the city’s parks. Outside of the city, you also have easy access to Muir Woods, Napa and Sonoma Valleys, the Marin Headlands, Yosemite National Park and many other beautiful natural landscapes. There is definitely no shortage of nature!
San Franciscans love their outdoor activities and fitness – Wherever you go, you will usually see residents walking, jogging and enjoying their outdoor work-outs. I didn’t see any indoor gym facilities in the city. You see locals running along the Embarcadero, throughout the neighbourhoods and on the trails around the Golden Gate Bridge. Who would want to work-out inside when you have access to such beauty and nature outside? Just walking from place to place and being forced to climb the steep hills, is a work-out in itself, as tourists. The people living here don’t even have to intentionally exercise, it just naturally happens when you are walking around! There are many beautiful parks with great views in the city, along with steep hills and hidden stairways to climb. My legs were super sore after this trip!
There are diverse cultures living in SF – If you visit Chinatown, you will be surrounded by Chinese people and it actually feels like you are in a different country, with the lanterns hanging from wires above the streets, Chinese architecture in their buildings, Chinese symbols everywhere, local shops and restaurants and outdoor street-side produce markets on almost every street corner. In the Mission District, you will find a concentration of Latino people, authentic Mexican taquerias on almost every street corner, sidewalk produce markets, and lots of restaurants serving various Latin American cuisine. The Mission District is also very diverse and if you visit Mission Dolores Park, you will notice the diversity in the people of various backgrounds, cultures and ages that live there.
San Francisco has amazing food. There are so many options for fresh produce and eating healthy – There’s no question about it, San Francisco has so much delicious food variety. As a Canadian, I was delighted to be able to legally purchase raw organic milk and yogurt here. Both were delicious! I loved visiting Bi-Rite Market in the Mission District and they had so much selection for organic food and produce and they had so many different brands of kombucha to choose from! I fell in love with the Health-Aide California Grape kombucha, and ended up going back to the market every day to buy another one. The Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market at the Ferry Building is also a great place to find vendors selling fresh and organic produce, sauerkraut, breads, jams, salsas and more, grown and made locally from all over California. It was amazing! There are also many street-side produce markets located everywhere in the Mission District, that sold cheap and fresh ingredients, fruits and vegetables. The taquerias (authentic Mexican taco places) in the Mission District were abundant, cheap and delicious. I could live there just for the food selection.
San Franciscans are not afraid to be different and are very open about engaging in alternative lifestyles – San Franciscans tend to be more liberal-minded than a lot of other places in the USA and Canada. You will see people openly smoking and selling marijuana (despite it being illegal in California), very unique and different fashion senses, naked men walking down the sidewalks in Haight-Ashbury, people singing or playing instruments randomly on street corners, and more. San Francisco is great for people-watching (especially in the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood and Mission Dolores Park) and you will definitely observe many interesting characters! The people in SF are also very accepting of LGBTQ individuals and sexual orientation is not something that the locals seek to hide from others.
I observed local women walking up steep hilly streets while wearing high heels, and they didn’t trip on anything, seem exhausted or bothered at all. This amazed me and I cannot imagine doing that! It was hard enough to climb the hills in runners, for me.
San Franciscans always carry a briefcase or a backpack with a change of clothes (ie. most likely a jacket) – They know how unpredictable the weather is. Even on a seemingly warm day, you never know when you might need a jacket at a cold and windy street corner.
San Franciscans are always on their phones and they always have ear buds in their ears – I understand that SF is a very technology-based city. There are a lot of software people, programmers, entrepreneurs, developers, and web designers living here, but they never put their phones away, anywhere! In restaurants, at the parks, and especially on the buses and BART train, the people all looked like they were in a zombie state, just stating down at their phones. I also noticed that a lot of people have ear buds in their ears all the time… especially when using public transport and when walking down the street. It appeared like they were closing themselves off from society, and not interacting with anyone except those on their phones and social media. It felt anti-social. This was very evident on the bus and train.
There are a lot of homeless people and substance addicts in San Francisco – Pretty much everywhere you go, you will find homeless people in San Francisco. They are mostly harmless and unlike in Winnipeg, they don’t beg you for money and make you feel uncomfortable. They can often be found sleeping at the lower side of Mission Dolores Park, covered in sleeping bags and tarps and with their shopping carts full of their belongings sitting beside them; digging through dumpsters on the street; congregating around the BART train stations and sleeping on the floor in the underground station; sleeping on bus benches on the sidewalk; hanging out in the mural-painted alleyways in the Mission District; and congregating on certain street corners in Haight-Ashbury. The largest concentrations of homeless people seemed to be in the Mission District, Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood, and around Market and Powell Streets. A lot of these homeless people struggle with substance addictions and likely mental health issues as well. My mom and I met a woman named Mercedes in the Clarion Alley in the Mission District. She told us a little about herself, we chatted about life and happiness, and we gave her enough money to buy an ice cream. She was very friendly and open and said that she sees people that are even people that are worse off than she is and that humbles her and makes her grateful for what she does have. It is really quite sad, the amount of homeless people in SF. These people have interesting stories and a lot of them used to be like us (productive members of society) but they fell upon some bad luck in life. It really makes you think, that this life situation could happen to any one of us and we don’t know what may befall us in the future. The homeless people in SF don’t bother other people, and I noticed that they were almost always sleeping.
People are smoking marijuana everywhere, despite it’s illegality – Depending on what neighbourhood you are visiting, you will more than likely catch a whiff of weed at some point during your travels in San Francisco. Mission Dolores Park, Haight-Ashbury, other various public parks and the Mission District in general, are places where you will definitely see people smoking marijuana openly or smell it. Even though it is illegal, the police seem to turn a blind eye. We even walked by a young man holding out his hand to passersby with a clump of weed in the palm of his hand, hoping to sell it to somebody on Haight Street. I don’t mind the smell and people choosing to smoke it really doesn’t bother me, but if you don’t like it, just know that it is everywhere.
Independent and locally owned shops, restaurants, markets and other businesses are abundant and there are hardly any major chain stores – I loved how SF had so many local shops and restaurants! The only chain store that I saw in the Mission District was a medium-sized Walgreens at 16th Street and Mission. It was really refreshing to see that so many local places were still going strong and doing so well, especially in our every-increasing corporate consumerist culture! I will always choose to support a local business-owner over a corporate chain store, and I really enjoyed being able to support the local produce markets and taquerias in the Mission as well as the local farmers at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. The neighbourhoods in San Francisco and the residents living there and supporting local businesses, seemed to be very community-minded, which I also loved.
There are beautiful murals everywhere – You can find colourful and detailed murals everywhere in San Francisco, but with the largest concentration in the Mission District. Murals can be found down almost every small alleyway and on the sides of many buildings through the Latino-influenced neighbourhood. It is fun to explore them. There are different historical and cultural meanings behind all of the murals, that are interesting to learn about.
I absolutely fell in love with San Francisco and am already planning what to do next time I return! It is such a diverse city with a lot of character and charm. I hope you enjoyed reading about these cultural observations that I made while visiting!