San FranciscoThursday, Jun 20, 2013 · 1800 words · approx 9 mins to read
I’m tapping this out from an almost fully reclined chair in Club class, on BA192, a 747-400 flight from Dallas, TX, to London. It’s the second time in my life that I’ve had the pleasure of one of these seats on a long-haul flight, so I thought I’d make the most of the privacy, peace, quiet and complementary champagne while we soar across the Atlantic.
I read a blog post by Antirez recently that summarised a recent stay of his in San Francisco, so I thought I’d do much the same. I’m on the final flight home from a week or so in San Francisco, where I’ve been on business, and my experience was pretty similar.
Getting to SFO from London is trivial but your options are limited. The only way is to get yourself to LHR and hop on a Virgin Atlantic, United or British Airways flight direct. It takes 8.5-10.5 hours depending on plane, flight path and winds. None of the other London airports service flights to the city.
The reverse journey is mostly trivial too, at least until you find yourself travelling at a busy time, like I am now, where an internal flight or high prices have to be suffered. I can’t really complain; SFO to DFW on American was a fine flight with thankfully minor hiccups, and this DFW to LHR flight is fantastic so far.
If you can provably confine your trip to San Francisco itself then I’d utilise public transport. Taxis, busses, trams and your feet are all fine ways to navigate the city, all the way from the seafront to the more elevated parts of the city. Some of the higher ground will likely require powered travel of some kind, but you should really walk as much as you can. There’s so much to see and experience that’s interesting that it’s highly worth taking your time.
It’s a great city, with a really nice blend of hustle and bustle in the built-up downtown, before it blends into the open oceanfront portion which stretches along the coast in both directions. Move further back from the Pacific and things get quieter, but no less interesting. I follow the west-coast startup scene via Hacker News, so I’ve read my fair share of stories about how certain parts of the city can be intimidating, but I’ve never really come across that, either on this trip or the other times I’ve been.
My experience, anecdotal as it is, tells me that while homeless people are more common than in the City of London, they’re nowhere near as harassing and intimidating. On the contrary, they tend to be funny and friendly when asking for help, and don’t tend to ambush you near places where it’s obvious you’ve just spent money. My experience in the City is completely different; homeless people group near shops, bars and cash machines, and don’t take as well to being declined.
I recommend spending a little time on Haight Street. If you can avoid the obvious raft of stereotypically-themed smoking shops1, there’s a great range of curious stores selling all manner of interesting things. And not just shitty little trinkets and tourist trap stuff either. Amoeba Records is a great place to start, and indeed that’s where I did start when a colleague and I spent a day making our way around the city. I thank Amoeba for its cheap and mighty collection of 2nd hand electronic music, since I managed to rediscover some of music that shaped my current tastes; music that I truly loved when I was finding my musical feet in my early teens, but had somehow lost along the way.
The food in San Francisco is terrific if you know where to look. If you’re in any coastal, cosmopolitan place in the United States, you’re doing it wrong if you find yourself in any chain restaurant of any kind. There’s so much independent food, for want of better words, to seek out that’s incredibly good. It ranges from tiny places selling what would be street food in the original country (Mexican is popular), to high-end fine cuisine.
In particular, do your very best to seek out Brenda’s French Soul Food on Polk, not far from the top of Market Street in San Francisco. It’s about a half hour trek from the bottom of Market on foot, and be prepared to spend at least twice that when you get there waiting outside on the street for a table. The food is absolutely outstanding and well worth the wait. If you go for breakfast, and you really should, try the beignets and the eggs Benedict if you can’t make your mind up, and the watermelon ice tea. Truly superb food, in a deep-south-but-with-a-couple-of-great-twists style.
It might just be a function of me only going to San Francisco and the surrounding areas on business trips, usually where someone else is paying, but be prepared to open your wallet for the privilege. In fact, be prepared to do that in San Francisco and Silicon Valley in general; it’s quite clear that SF and SV residents are typically affluent, and the cost of spending time in the city or in the valley is reflected in that in general.
If you can’t confine yourself to San Francisco, you really need a car, especially if you spend any time in the South Bay Area, in the heart of the Valley. It’s such a massive concrete expanse that the BART can only service a subset of. I had a rental car for the days I was out there and put 250 miles on it flitting between Santa Clara, Mountain View, Cupertino, Sunnyvale and San Francisco itself — a trip that included a memorable drive through downtown San Francisco — and I wasn’t that busy in terms of places I needed to be. The South Bay Area that includes those iconic areas, icons of modern computing and modern technology at least, is well connected, but only really by road in my opinion. The 101 runs through or close by it all, and you branch off it as required as you make your way up and down the left edge of the Bay.
If you’re in the technology business and you’re planning on staying in the Valley, do yourself a favour and stay in the Marriott in Santa Clara. It’s a very nice hotel with great beds, great breakfast, great service and good parking, and it’s right next door to the 101. If you have anything to do with modern computing, it’s slap bang in the heartland where it all happens, 10-20 minutes, even with the 101 a little congested, from everyone. You can step out into the sun after breakfast and be in the lobby at Imagination, Intel, Apple, Google, NVIDIA, AMD and many others in less than half an hour. I stayed there on this trip and I’ve stayed there twice before, and it’s where I’ll try and stay in the future. The wired Internet connectivity at the hotel is cheap, and the 4G signal and service is strong and fast. In fact, I had great AT&T LTE performance on my iPhone 5 in SF, the South Bay and Dallas throughout the trip.
Thinking back to the time I had in San Francisco, Fisherman’s Wharf is worth a visit once but that’s the third trip a row to SF where it’s been overly crowded and unpleasant to get around. Restaurants and bars are packed and service was spotty. In fact, that reminds me: cash doesn’t seem to be a thing SF is equipped for these days, yet the States’ handling of credit and debit cards seems at odds with the cash adverse nature of the parts of California I’m flying home from.
More than once we had to wait to get trivial amounts of change when using cash, including in a busy bar, and when you do use your card, card security is nowhere to be seen. It’s incredibly common to have your card taken away from your table after you’ve seen a bill, and it leaves your sight for minutes at a time sometimes to do so. When it comes back, all that was needed for authorisation was a scribble on a piece of paper to seal the transaction, and at no point did I catch anyone checking the signature on the receipt to the signature on the card.
I don’t understand why, either, given that card fraud is never the customer’s fault in the US and the burden for fraudulent purchases and chargebacks is squarely the vendor’s problem to deal with. I’m very used to the card rarely leaving my hands in the UK, and it’s very infrequent that it leaves my sight, never mind for whole minutes at a time. Proof of card ownership happens with a PIN, not an unchecked scribble on a piece of paper.
The last thing on my list to write down is the one thing that will tempt me to work in the Valley at some point in my career, should I persuade Imagination to let me setup a performance analysis team there; if you’re reading, boss, it’s on my to-do list so be prepared.
The climate for that part of the West cost of the States is perfect for me. Consistently bright and warm, without being too hot, for most of the year, but with enough of a coastal climate to keep things interesting. I can’t imagine life without a breeze or some rain, something that I’m sure is absolutely alien to the residents of Dallas where I’ve just come from. It was nearly 40 degrees celsius there and very humid, compared to the low 20s and moderate humidity in and around the Bay. There’s a great cooling breeze that comes from the coast, at least at this time of the year, and it really is the climate for me. I’d love to have that kind of weather in the UK for the majority of the year. Love.
As a technologist, San Francisco and Silicon Valley almost feel like a home away from home for me. It was great to be out there discussing graphics with colleagues and customers, both existing and potential, for the last few days. One day I’d like to write about a trip that spans a few years and really spend a good part of my life there.
California is one of the few progressive States that finds itself very much at peace with marijuana, and indeed seems to be less intrusive into the private lives of individuals in general, despite the government’s best efforts to erode that recently.