Travel: San Francisco, the US's counter-culture capital

Embrace your inner rebel with a trip to San Francisco, writes James Rampton

City Lights Books in San Francisco

The words of the prophets are written on the wall at the famously anti-establishment City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. The posters variously proclaim: “Pity the nation whose people are sheep, and whose shepherds mislead them,” “Stash your cell phone and be here now,” “Turn left,” “Disarm,” and “Abandon all despair, ye who enter here.”

The store was the epicentre of the post-war Beat Generation. That reputation was sealed in 1957 when its owner, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, successfully defended Howl, the controversial Allen Ginsberg poetry collection Ferlinghetti had published, against charges of obscenity. It was a red letter day for free speech. The bookstore, which houses a poetry room upstairs, lies in the heart of the vibrant North Beach area of the city. One of the first stops during our week-long stay in San Francisco, the store is emblematic of a city that, nearly 60 years after the trial, continues to be refreshingly alternative and off-beat. It is still the counterculture capital of the world.

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Which makes it a terrific place to visit. My family – my wife, three teenage daughters and I – have a marvellous time exploring what remains the most defiantly un-American of American cities. The most gay-friendly place in the US, and the setting for Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, San Francisco represents many liberal ideas that you would not always immediately associate with that country.

The San Remo hotel

On our first day, for example, we explore the area where the counterculture revolution began: Haight-Ashbury. This part of the city is now so popular with tourists that the local authorities have hung the Haight and Ashbury street signs at the junction of those two celebrated thoroughfares unusually high because so many visitors were “borrowing” them as souvenirs.

Just in case you don’t realise you are going into Anti-Establishment Central, you’re greeted at the start of the Haight-Ashbury area by a giant fresco of Jimi Hendrix playing guitar with his eyes closed. It’s like you’ve gone through a rip in the fabric of time to the Woodstock era of peace, love and understanding. On one corner, a gaggle of ageing groovers in standard-issue tie-dye T-shirts are hula-hooping, juggling and doing barefoot dancing. Unfortunately, they are strangers to rhythm.

The names of the shops in Haight-Ashbury, which is vintage-store heaven for my daughters, mirror its continuing Summer of Love vibe: The Peace Center B&B, Reincarnation – The Tibetan Gift Corner, Coffee to the People and, perhaps least surprising of all, the Head Rush Smoke Shop. Even the Ben and Jerry’s in Haight-Ashbury advertises itself as the home of “Peace, Love and Ice Cream”.

On Ashbury Street stands the beautiful, pastel-shaded wooden Victorian residence that was once the home of The Grateful Dead, a house of many parties and even more visits by the police. Today’s owners have removed the Grateful Dead signs, as fans – “Dead Heads” – were nicking doorknobs as mementoes.

The San Remo hotel

Our hotels in San Francisco were as original as Haight-Ashbury. We stayed first at the Inn at the Presidio. The hotel is in the former Bachelor Officers’ Quarters at the Presidio, a one-time military base that has defended the Golden Gate Bridge since the 1700s and was turned into a national park in 1994. The park, which you could spend a week exploring, has 24 miles of hiking and biking trails and several birdwatching areas.

The inn, on Moraga Avenue, enjoys a lovely hilltop setting, surrounded by giant eucalyptus trees. Benefiting from splendid views across the bay, it is an oasis of calm in the bustling city. It also boasts the sort of naturally charming service that many more curmudgeonly British establishments could learn from.

Every evening it hosts a lovely complimentary wine and cheese gathering around its fire pit that is so satisfying you may not feel like going out for dinner afterwards. The inn is an ideal retreat for those who want to stay in San Francisco but still relish periods far from the madding crowds. 

Our other hotel in San Francisco was equally winning. The San Remo is a wonderfully quirky, lemon, wooden hotel on Mason Street, preserved exactly as it was when it was built in 1906 to help those reconstructing the city after a catastrophic earthquake. None of the 65 rooms is en-suite, but they are all filled with eye-catching and eccentric antiques and possess an undoubted period charm. It fits in with the city’s sense of daring to be different.

Another wonderful aspect of San Francisco? The spectacular views.

Wherever you turn, you do a double-take as you catch a glimpse of the stunning, often mist-wreathed bay. These vistas are enhanced by San Francisco’s trademark hills. There is no need to go to the gym when you’re visiting this city – you’ll get more than enough of a workout as you walk up and down its 43 – count ’em – hills.

Yes, you could call this a city that is hippy-dippy and in some ways stuck in another, more revolutionary era. And it is certainly true that there are many more conventional, just as enjoyable, ways to spend a holiday in San Francisco. You can, for instance, ride the iconic trams, visiting the fascinating former prison island of Alcatraz, or stroll for hours around the largest Chinatown outside of China, or marvel at the Fisherman’s Wharf sea-lion colony that has taken up residence beside Pier 39.

But the vibe of alternative San Francisco is really quite captivating, and for a family with teenage children, it is a fantastically diverting place to take a holiday. More than half a century on, its countercultural ethos remains infectious.  

Mark Twain once wrote that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” That could easily be San Francisco’s motto.

• In May, United Airlines ( fly from Edinburgh to San Francisco via Newark from £621 return. Rooms at the Inn at the Presidio ( start at £242 per night for a double room. Rooms at the San Remo ( start at £90.50 per night for a double room.