San Francisco is the first place I ever really traveled to. Born and raised in south Florida, I’d grown up with one foot in Maryland since my parents’ families lived there, but a road trip down Pacific Coast Highway with my family when I was 11 was my first venture into the unknown. Landing in San Francisco, with 3000 miles and a 3-hour time difference between me and home, I’d never felt so far away.
A few years after that first trip to San Francisco, I revisited. San Francisco marked the halfway point in a 7-week summer excursion I made with a busload of fellow teenagers. It was the longest time I’d ever been away from home and after two solid weeks of crying on the phone to my parents, begging them to let me come home, they agreed to book me a ticket back to Florida if I stuck it out ‘til San Francisco.
By the time I made it to San Francisco, I no longer wanted to go home. My homesickness had vanished and I began to realize just how cool other parts of the world are. San Francisco was the place where I chose to stay on the road. The spell of being a homebody had broken, and I was free. I became a traveler, a person who could make a home out of anyplace.
Photo by Alex Sam via Trover.com
Ten years, countless trips, and a couple of long-term stints living abroad later, San Francisco no longer feels like the furthest place from home.
Often hailed as the most European city in the United States, San Francisco is really something special. It’s unmistakably a city—bursting with culture in a way I’d never seen, rife with renowned theaters and operas and ballets, creative and unique gastronomy, fine shopping, beautiful Victorian architecture (a prized feature in this relatively young country. To take advantage of this, I recommend staying at Hotel Beresford), and historical sites—but it’s got something else: fresh air and a punchy personality. It’s not your run-of-the-mill city, but several vibrant neighborhoods, each one accepting but completely self-aware, holding tightly to its own personality. From the hipsters to the Bohemians to the techies to the businessmen to the expatriates to the yuppies, there’s a place for everyone in San Francisco. Even a homesick fourteen year old.
Photo by Elza Hayen via Trover.com
San Francisco eased me into life as a traveler. I did the touristy things—I drove down Lombard street, slurped ice cream at the original Ghirardelli, ate seafood around Fisherman’s Wharf, rode a ferry to Alcatraz, marveled at the Painted Ladies while pretending I was a member of the Tanner family, bought a tiny Buddha statue at a store in the country’s oldest Chinatown, stood agape at the Golden Gate Bridge. I had some location-nonspecific life experiences, like receiving my first-ever gift from a boy: a lanyard bracelet with my name misspelled (He bought it, didn’t make it, and knew the spelling was wrong, but thought it was funny. I laughed and told him we should just be friends). And I did the travely things: I tried to soak up as much of a place as possible in a short amount of time—the feel of San Francisco’s hilly streets, of its inhabitants, of the lifestyle.
But try as one might, it’s not possible to experience all of San Francisco in a short amount of time. It’s too varied, too dynamic, too quirky to get to know in just a few days every few years. But that makes your trips here all the better. Even with a million more things left to see at the end of each stay, you’ll feel you were somehow changed.
So go and do the touristy things, and reach your own milestone, and soak it in and let yourself be changed by it. And then go back. Because, while I didn’t leave my heart there, San Francisco was undoubtedly the impetus for a sudden change of it. San Francisco marked the beginning of a new kind of life for me and, if you let it, it could for you too.