Food, fine wine and fireworks make for an unforgettable stay in the City by the Bay, writes Greg Fleming.

One of the first things you learn about San Francisco is that it's a city of contradictions.

Small in size and population (the city has just 840,000 residents), it's large in reputation. Those four syllables conjure up a wealth of images — steep streets, free love, trams and — inevitably — the Golden Gate Bridge with the fog rolling in.

Other things have been rolling in too: money (Silicon Valley) and tourists (17 million a year).

It's America's wealthiest city but the rising tide has left many gasping for breath. You think Auckland's tough; average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is $960 a week. Affluence is palpable but so is the city's homeless problem; it was front-page news on the morning we landed. The good news for visitors is there are thousands of hotels and rates drop in the off-season.


San Francisco's diversity was evident on the subway, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) from the airport to the hotel. In our carriage, a homeless man muttering to himself, a young, loved-up couple in sunnies, a tall, immaculately dressed woman who looked like she was off to the ballet, a rail-thin transgender person in skintight leather pants - and this was 9am on a Sunday morning.

And no pre-recorded stop info here. Over the intercom our driver cajoled tardy travellers, "I'll wait, but I ain't waitin' long, board up! Board up!"

I flew in on United Airline's inaugural flight direct from Auckland just in time for the Fourth of July celebrations (the city's annual fireworks display on the harbour is world famous).

I'd packed for a Californian summer but when we landed at SFO (a great airport, it beats LAX any day for efficiency; there's even a yoga room!), it was just 12C.

Yes, another contradiction. There's a reason the souvenir shops sell fleece-lined jackets. Ask any local, July's one of their colder months, so do as the locals do and dress in layers.

And add another layer if you're catching the ferry to Alcatraz. Book ahead, as this is one of the city's most popular attractions. The prisoners are long gone but there's a wealth of history and mythology on display.

It was that night's foodie tour of the Mission and 18th St by Edible Excursions I was most looking forward to.

San Francisco has a vibrant culinary scene and the cafes and restaurants in this fast-changing neighbourhood are among the best and most affordable in the city. Some, such as Mission Chinese, are nationally known and booking is essential for dinner (they also donate part of your cheque to the city's homeless), others you turn up and try your luck.

The area (a 15-minute Uber from downtown) is still a little rough around the edges; rundown bars, single-room occupancy hotels and laundromats rub shoulders with slick eateries and artisan cafes. Our tour host, Lisa Rogovin, was a passionate advocate of the area which she deems the most interesting in the city ("It's safe, I've never had any trouble"). Our three-hour walking tour included food tastings at every stop.

Highlights included Neapolitan pizza from Mozzeria (on 16th St), owned and staffed by an all-deaf team (no, they don't take phone bookings); pulled pork tacos from Tacolicious and Mosto, and artisan chocolate from Dandelion Chocolate (started by a tech millionaire and his wife, apparently a common occurrence in San Fran). Their hot chocolate is legendary - and spot the hipsters writing code down the back.

Dandelion Chocolate, San Francisco. Photo / Daniel Zemans, Creative Commons License
Dandelion Chocolate, San Francisco. Photo / Daniel Zemans, Creative Commons License

But there's good and inexpensive food all over the city. A plate of sesame chicken I had at the House of Nanking in Chinatown was superb and great value (US$9.95). A hot tip: forget the online reviews, go for the restaurants with a queue out the door, locals know their food.

And if you like live jazz head to Hillstone (right across the street from the Alcatraz tour), the chain serves unfussy American food in a great ambience and the biggest, and best, steak of the trip (US$35).

July 4 dawned foggy and cold (the big local news? Fog may obscure the evening's fireworks) but nothing could dampen the spirit of the locals on Independence Day. The guy downtown serving my Starbucks coffee (they do a pretty good flat white) greeted me with a beaming "Happy Fourth!" despite the early hour.

First on the agenda was a tour of Muir Woods about a half-hour drive from San Fran. Muir is home to some skyscraper-sized redwoods and good hiking trails. Then back in the bus for a winery tour through Sonoma and Napa Valley.

As we pulled out of Muir Woods our guide told us we wouldn't need our jackets soon; few believed him but, sure enough, 20 minutes later it was a picture-perfect Cali summer in the gorgeous Sonoma Valley. Red, white and blue was everywhere — jeans, big bellies, hats, flags, faces — patriotism is not a spectator sport on July Fourth.

Sonoma and Napa Valley are some of the best winemaking spots in North America and the second most visited attraction in California behind Disneyland.

Sonoma is bigger but less commercialised than Napa and home to 450 wineries; Napa is just as pretty and the wineries are bigger, slicker and the bottles pricier.

We visited two vineyards in Sonoma (a one-hour, 40-minute drive from San Francisco). Our bus-tour wine geeks were enthralled by the tastings and wine talk. I headed outside to the vines and took in the beauty of the day, T-shirt weather at last.

For lunch we headed into the Sonoma town square where a Fourth of July picnic was in full swing. Sonoma Square is one of the few places in California where you can wander around and drink wine or beer without getting arrested, and plenty were doing that.

I grabbed a tri-tip sandwich from a great little deli, the Sonoma Cheese Factory. Its specialty is Monterey Jack cheese, a semi-hard cow's milk cheese originally made by the Mexican Franciscan friars of Monterey. Tri-tip is the triangular muscle cut from the bottom sirloin of a steer, a Californian speciality; add some pickles and hot sauce and you've got a hell of a sandwich.

I sat in the park and took in the celebrations — overflowing plates, dancers, bands, barbecues, picnics and market stalls. Here, at least for a day, the troubles and uncertain future of a nation were set aside and we all celebrated as one. If I'd had a flag I would've waved it.

"You picked the best place to be today," said one Sonoma local who I'd asked to snap some pictures of me among the celebrations. I couldn't have agreed more.

That night, back in the city, I stood with thousands down by the bay as night fell and the clear sky above San Francisco Bay exploded with light. We all cheered, even the homeless guy selling sodas for a dollar a pop.

On my last day in the city I hopped on a bus and rode through the infamous Tenderloin, just minutes from San Francisco's Civic Centre and stunning City Hall but another world entirely. Its streets were full of deals, drama and deprivation (Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon here). I continued through a jaded Haight-Ashbury, across that iconic bridge and into Union Square the central shopping, hotel and theatre district.

Here's the thing with San Francisco, stop trying to make sense of it, once you do you may just learn to love it. And now's the time to go before the Big Money takes over entirely.

It's one of the most exciting and perplexing cities in the US; loud, liberal (Bernie Sanders is still a hero here), smart (turns out the fireworks people had anticipated the fog and programmed much of the display to a lower altitude), artsy (the new Museum of Modern Art is a must-see) and unforgettable. Board up, indeed.

Getting there: United Airlines flies from Auckland to San Francisco three times a week, and daily from October 30.

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