Goggling at Golden Gate Bridge, cruising Chinatown, careering downhill in cable cars, and feasting on clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf. All before brief banishment to Alcatraz, Al Capone’s prison colony. In an urban jungle lacking a tedious tourist “to do” list, the sights needn’t be so predictable – even for first-time visitors.
While not for the faint-hearted, offbeat urban trails are the best way to explore San Francisco’s most elusive districts. When mad Daniel Oppenheim, a model citizen masquerading as a safari ranger, picks you up in his zebra-painted Land Rover, be prepared to relinquish control. Chirpy Daniel (catchphase: “it’s a jungle out there”) solicitously piles on the fake leopard-skin rugs before we race down the street famous for those Steve McQueen car stunts. Anyone who can name the most films made in San Francisco is rewarded with animal crackers; failure is punished with bursts of The Lion King. Forget animal crackers: Daniel is plain crackers.
Best to refuse all food before the next car chase down San Francisco’s steepest, crookedest street. Dressed in safari suits and old colonial hats, we are fair game for passing shots from incredulous locals. “Hey, I’m a ranger.” “And I’m Eddie Murphy’s brother” shoots back a slick San Franciscan rapper. The Zebra-mobile is bound for Yerba Buena Gardens, which border the new cultural district around the bold Museum of Modern Art. Daniel saunters through the park to a huge granite waterfall dedicated to Martin Luther King, inscribed with his words of wisdom: “It’s no longer a choice between violence and non-violence. It’s non-violence or non-existence.”
The Peacenik sentiments meet with the citizens’ approval, even if the city has been brought down more by natural disaster than violence. After the 1906 earthquake and fires obliterated most of the city, new buildings have been built with care, recently incorporating rollers and shock absorbers. Later, we pass Lotta’s Fountain, the spot where survivors of the earthquake (now down to the last dozen) poignantly mark each anniversary. If San Francisco’s pulse beats faster than any other West Coast city, it can be traced to the subconscious fear of another quake.
The mad-hatter safari rides into the multicultural Mission District, which is crammed with Hispanic bars, Mexican bakeries and taquerias, authentic burrito joints. In the mural-lined Balmy Alley, street art has a social conscience: the heartfelt protest murals paint a picture of community pride and political repression in pockets of the Hispanic world. For once, our zebra-painted Land Rover looks at home. Even the local McDonalds is covered in murals: only in San Francisco. Lunch is Latino style, in La Taqueria, with a watermelon agua fresca and an avocado and beans-stuffed burrito. During the May Carnival that showcases Latino culture, the Mission is awash with colourful parades as psychedelic as San Francisco’s Summer of Love forty years ago. Daniel would have been in his element with its ”turn on, tune in, drop out” cosmic awareness.