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San Francisco: Does The City Still Have Soul?

While I doing some research prior to my holiday in San Francisco, I stumbled across an article in the Guardian, which argued the city was losing its soul. I decided to visit with an open mind, and attempt to discover whether "the tide is going out" or if the hilly city still has its pizzazz.

While I doing some research prior to my holiday in San Francisco, I stumbled across an article in the Guardian, which argued the city was losing its soul.

"San Francisco has become a bedroom city for people who work in Silicon Valley," the writer ominously stated.

I decided to visit with an open mind, and attempt to discover whether "the tide is going out" or if the hilly city still has its pizzazz.

There's no doubt the city has many faces. One of these is the burgeoning East Asian population, who bring with them a cultural dynamic which has infiltrated the heart of San Francisco.

The Chinatown markets

The city's Chinatown, the largest outside Asia, is a far cry from London's tourist-trap. Yes, there is the tourist entrance, but access the area through Stockton St tunnel instead. Plunged into temporary darkness, it's almost as if you are taking a shortcut to China itself when you emerge the other side. The sights, smells and hustle and bustle of the area is an unmissable experience, and actually one of the highlights of my trip.

If you're keen to explore the city's East Asian dynamic, then book into Hotel Nikko, an Asian-inspired hotel on Powell Street. The rooms are spacious, and the lobby is a calm oasis - full of cascading water features, plush chairs and marbled decor. Not only does the Nikko boast spacious rooms, and possibly one of the most comfortable beds I've ever slept in, but it also has a swimming pool, spa centre, steam room, sauna and a gym. It's definitely a welcome break from the sometimes-hectic city, and the spa facilities are the perfect place to unwind after a day's exploring.

It's no mean feat to find a pool in San Francisco, let alone one with a glass roof

The hotel's ANZU restaurant, although a little dark for my liking, also needs a mention. Even the typical American breakfast (think pancakes, applewood smoked bacon and eggs), has been given an Asian infusion. Not only is there fruit, pastries and cold meats on offer, there's even a Japanase buffet. Now I never thought I'd be eating pickled spinach, stir fry and steamed rice for breakfast, but I did and my goodness it was good.

The incredible Japanese breakfast

I was sceptical the restaurant's dinner would be able to live up to its breakfast, but as it had been recommended by a local San Franciscan, I figured I had to at least try it out. The sushi menu was eye-bogglingly vast. The wagyu beef, served raw with a hot Japanese river stone to cook the meat to your liking was ingenious. Next up; the short ribs, with delightfully smooth pureed celeriac, exquisitely light truffle foam and crunchy sauteed sprouts, were so tender no knife was needed. Paired with the house cocktail Anzurita, the meal was a tastebud-tingling delight, and showcased the best of both East Asian and American worlds.

The young population of the city is also impossible to ignore. Lively, vibrant and buzzing, San Francisco has a lot to offer for the younger traveller. If you want to get in on laid-back atmosphere then head to Steffs sports bar on 2nd Street, a cool downtown venue where multiple TVs show games and pictures of athletes adorn the walls. Once you've had your fill of beer (or whatever takes your fancy), then head to Bella Lucca pizza and get your 20" dose of soft dough, juicy toppings and stringy cheese. Probably the best pizza in town.

Head to The Haight district (take the 71 Muni bus from Market Street), to immerse yourself in the city's 60s hippie scene. It's basically Camden, but nicer, cleaner and all-round better. Spend the day poking around old bookstores, lazing in cafes or just soaking up the flower-power vibes.

Accommodation-wise, the boutique Hotel Zetta offers a friendly, personal and chilled experience, with top-notch facilities to boot. It can't be better located either, it's right next to Westfield. And no, it's nothing like the London ones - Americans know how to do their malls.

As soon as you step into the lobby, you're whisked miles away from the jostling 5th street and into a trendy, hip open space, complete with an incredibly well-stocked bar. Upstairs, there's a huge chillout area, with a pool table, tennis table, games, seating area and more. It really is an urban hipster's playground. By night, the lobby comes alive with hotel regulars and locals. After returning from a day's sightseeing and shopping, I plonked myself at the bar and ordered an old-fashioned. Made with butter-infused bourbon, and paired with great conversation from the barwoman, it was possibly one of the best I've ever had.

Hotel Zetta's lobby/bar area is simultaneously serene, low key and buzzing

The rooms, however, are even better; surprisingly huge for a boutique hotel, the dark wooden floors, hanging lights and office chairs make for a chic living space. The bathroom felt just as big as the bedroom - and had a huge, luscious shower. The coffee machine, naturally, was a whole other experience in itself. The whole hotel is finished to perfection by gorgeous little touches; local chocolate in the rooms (incredible), normal-sized shampoo and conditioner to save on the miniatures and help the environment, and, the icing on the cake: the bend-over-backwards-to-help-you staff.

As, like most American hotels, Zetta doesn't include breakfast, head over to nearby Walgreens on 134 Powell Street for a yoghurt granola fix, or, if you're really hungry, the amazing sauerkraut and beef on rye bread combo. Get it toasted and you won't be hungry til dinner.

By the time dinner time does come round, you'll want check out Buckhorn on the lower ground floor of Westfield. They do the most incredible tri tip salad I have ever laid my tastebuds on, served up in a giant tortilla bowl and swimming in a delicious lemon dressing. Get stuck in.

If you're in the city to do some shopping, then the place to stay is the Grand Hyatt. Slap bang on Union Square it's pretty much next door to the Nike Store (a sports-lover's paradise), a stone's throw from Macy's, Saks and Barney's.

The Grand Hyatt's club lounge

The hotel is a buzzing hive of activity; the lobby has a cosy living room feel with well-worn brown leather couches and a pop up coffee stall. Shoot up the elevator to club lounge on the 32nd floor and you can take in the magnificent, near-panoramic views of the bay, while nibbling on fresh cookies. The lounge even provides a complimentary continental breakfast, and evening hors d'oeuvres. What better way to frame a day of sight-seeing?

A grand club guestroom

Once you've shopped til you've dropped, you can kick back in a huge bed, and if you're lucky, more stunning views of the bay, or relax in the beautifully finished, and fantastically spacious bathroom.

The die-hard sports community is also something which you've got to dip a toe into. Head to possibly the most beautiful ballpark in Major League Baseball: AT&T. Whether you're a baseball fan or not, you can't fail to appreciate the stunning architecture of the stadium and the friendly, relaxed atmosphere (not to mention the ballpark food!).

The stunning AT&T park by the bay

Now, of course, you're getting to the tourist-y side of the city. And although it can be slightly tacky, and often crowded, it's still got soul.

First off, Fisherman's Wharf. Yes it's hideously rammed but if you head first thing you skip the crowds and it can actually be pretty peaceful, and you'll have access to all the great views without the queues. Track down the incredibly old-school arcade, which has games from the Victorian era, and eerie circus displays. Stop off at Cold Stone's for a mid-morning smoothie (or gigantic ice-cream) to cool down and re-fuel. Once you've got enough energy together, hike up one of the famously-steep hills and check out the view back down - Lombard Street is the best known, for its precariously windy streets.

The gorgeous Crissy Fields

San Francisco's residents are undeniably keen runners - they are *everywhere* you look, especially on along the Embarcadero. But if walking's more your thing, then push yourself to the limit and walk as far as you can up to the Golden Gate Bridge. You'll go through Fisherman's Wharf, up to Crissy Fields, along golden sand, all the while keeping an eye on that infamous bridge. Make sure you check out the Palace of Fine Arts on 3301 Lyon St. It looks better than the story behind it sounds, so just soak up the views and while away the afternoon under the impressive architecture on the manicured lawns and beside the calm lake.

Watching sunset from Aquatic Park Pier

Double back to Fisherman's Wharf and head over to Aquatic Cove where you'll find an unexpected little beach, perfect for kids or dipping your toes into the chilly water. If you stick around til sunset, make the walk down to the Aquatic Park Pier and soak up the gorgeous view of the sun setting behind the Golden Gate Bridge.

Alternatively you can stick to the city and hike up to Coigt Tower, for some incredible views of the city. Just make sure you're wearing comfortable shoes. Those hills are a killer.

The hike up to Coigt Tower

The North Beach quarter, near the Coigt Tower, is well worth checking out while you're in the area. Keep strolling through Chinatown and you'll end up in the "Little Italy" of San Francisco, nicknamed as such due to the large Italian population and reams of Italian eateries. Kick back and relax in the Washington Square to mentally prepare yourself for the hike up to the tower.

San Francisco is a multifaceted city. It's a city for the trendies, the families, the sports-mad - there's far too many sides to San Fran for it to be filed under a label. But whatever your interests are, you certainly can't argue the city ain't got soul.

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