San Francisco left a permanent mark on me during my 2014 solo Couchsurfing trip across the United States, so I jumped right on the opportunity of coming back for conferences and workshops. Not only that: this blog post marks my return to travel writing post-lockdowns! So without further ado, here’s your pole dancer’s guide to San Francisco.
This post has many disclaimers, and it’s worth getting them out of the way from the word go. First of all, this time I spent only a long weekend in San Francisco, so of course this guide isn’t as exhaustive as it would have been if I’d been there for three weeks. BUT I *did* stay there for nearly three weeks in 2014 so even if a lot may have changed since then, some of my favourite landmarks remain. As a result, I’ll be linking to some old content (get ready for lo-fi, baby Carolina, iPhone 4 blogging vibes).
Another disclaimer: you will notice that a lot of spots I mention are either breakfast or lunch spots, and that I haven’t included many bars. That’s due to my personal preference: I often didn’t have lunch (because of jet lag) and don’t drink as much as I used to so no cocktails for me.
You may also notice that my perspective is very European. That is because I am European, and have spent most of my life in Europe, meaning that you may find some of my comments obvious or useless if you’re from the US.
Last but not least: nothing here was #gifted. I paid for everything myself, with the notable exception of my polewear and athleisure, kindly gifted by Pole Junkie, and with the crucial help from work: I was in Stanford for a conference, meaning that British Airways flights to and from London, cab rides in between airports and hotels a few meals and Stanford accommodation were covered by my institution. I wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise!
P.S. you can check out my Stanford talk below!
San Francisco flights
I flew to San Fran on a direct British Airways flight from London, covered by work. BA is probably the most comfortable airline I’ve flown with long-haul (even more comfortable than the loooong Ethiad flight I caught to Sydney), but needless to say: the flight is LONG. Plan for at least 10 hours, buy plenty of water, set yourself up with yummy airport meals because in-flight food isn’t great and, crucially, wear something comfy and breathable. I travelled with my second skin, aka the Creatures of XIX over-sized jogger set in black from Pole Junkie (#gifted). Get the set below with my link:
- Oversized cropped jumper – Black (Creatures of XIX)
- Oversized jogger bottoms – Black (Creatures of XIX).
San Francisco Safety
I feel I have to include a paragraph about San Francisco and safety for two reasons: because a lot of people put the fear of God into me about SF as a solo female traveller, and because a lot of articles you will find about San Fran, or a lot of venue / hotel reviews will mention safety, or lack thereof.
While reading hotel reviews when choosing my hotel, a variety of Google and TripAdvisor reviews recommended against booking specific stays because of “lack of safety”. When I read on, it became apparent that by “lack of safety” they meant “homelessness,” so you now get the inevitable social justice spiel because I am a left-wing killjoy.
I knew quite a bit about the homelessness situation in San Francisco before going there, because in my old job I interviewed a researcher who published studies on the San Francisco Homelessness Project and had to do quite a bit of reading to write about it. Organised every year by a set of local newspapers, the SF Homeless Project is “dedicated to examining and seeking solutions to a seemingly intractable problem made more acute by the pandemic.” And it is, indeed, very acute.
In her book Silicon Values, American activist and Director of International Freedom of Expression Jillian C. York talks about living in San Francisco at the cusp of the explosion of social media platforms. I remember that time: I was there, and the city has really changed since then. In 2014, I had just finished my undergrad degree and I was Couchsurfing. Already, most all my hosts worked for Big Tech companies such as Facebook or Google. I remember speaking to a Facebook intern who was on an $8,000 monthly salary. The Lexington Club, the city’s only Lesbian bar at 19th and Lexington, very close to where I was staying, was still open. The Mission was a bustling, hip but fairly affordable area.
Alas, Jillian writes, it wasn’t to last: the arrival of Silicon Valley workers, the same people working at the Google Campus and spending thousands on rent while being picked up by the Google shuttle to go to Mountain View, were about to gentrify the area. If an intern was on $8,000 a month, you can only imagine what full-time employees must have been earning. And with that, inevitably, comes a cost of living and rent increase that prices out those who can’t keep up, particularly in a country where free healthcare isn’t a human right.
This is all to say that yes, San Francisco has a homeless problem. I dare you to stay there even for a day without noticing it. But it’s also very apparent that homeless people in San Francisco are hardly ever dangerous. They may talk to you, ask you for money, or travel with you on public transit. But I didn’t feel unsafe in their presence.
There are, however, some neighbourhoods and things you should be avoiding: avoid the Tenderloin like the plague – and this is easier said than done, because it’s right next to Downtown San Francisco; be careful around the quiet streets of SoMa at night; keep your wits about you, don’t flash cash, expensive jewellery or walk glued to your mobile phone. And if something feels eerily quiet, take an Uber.
Sounds familiar? If it does, it’s probably because, like me, you live in a big city. As a solo traveller in San Francisco, I acted exactly the way I act when I’m in London, the city I live in.
Getting around San Francisco
There are many ways to get around San Francisco. Pick your own depending on safety, ease and time.
Although a variety of people recommended against walking alone in SF, I did it quite a bit and had no problem with it. The walk from Union Square through to Chinatown and North Beach, for instance, is super chill and safe. So is the walk through the Mission.
Unlike many American cities, which still confuse me because of their grid system, SF is incredibly walkable and resembles many European cities. As I said, some corners may feel quiet, dark and sketchy but so do corners in other big cities. So feel the vibe and act accordingly.
Public transit was also something I was advised against taking, but because I’m a rebel I didn’t listen and it was completely fine. In fact, public transit – and particularly the N line of the Caltrain going from Union Square through the Haight Ashbury towards Ocean Beach – is an extremely fun, panoramic and quaint ride.
San Francisco’s transport system has gone almost entirely paperless, which means you won’t find many kiosks selling tickets. The good news is that all you have to do to hop on public transport is, if you have an iPhone, going to your Apple Wallet, selecting the + sign on the top right, adding a transport card and selecting a Clipper card (the SF version of a London Oyster). You don’t even have to create an account – all you have to do is put money on your card (e.g. I put $10 for three days and had some cash to spare) and simply tap your phone, even on lock screen, on the transport terminals. The card will work on the BART (the underground), the Caltrain (over/underground), the cable car and buses. In short: you’re sorted, even in your trips to and from the airport, which is covered by BART.
Are you even in Silicon Valley if you don’t hop on an Uber? One good thing about the US’s over-reliance on cars and the presence of Silicon Valley bros in the Bay Area is that Ubers are way cheaper than in other cities I’ve been in. For instance, you can ride all the way from San Francisco International Airport to Downtown SF for less than $50, which in London sometimes barely gets you from North to Central London.
I was very excited to catch a Lyft – Uber’s pink competitor – again, but found that it was way more expensive than Uber, so I avoided.
Either way, you will find that Uber drivers in SF like to chat, and I found my rides a really fun cultural experience. In London I or most drivers wouldn’t be caught dead speaking to each other, but partly because of travelling and partly because of the chatty US culture I enjoyed the chatty vibes.
All this riding however has a downside: most drivers I spoke with were unhappy with Uber’s treatment of workers. While drivers in the United Kingdom recently gained worker status – meaning they have a right to minimum wage and holiday pay – US drivers don’t have the same luxury. One driver even told me she was struggling to choose between paying for her groceries and her bills, and that the company had over-hired, making SF competitive for gig drivers. Silicon Valley capitalism strikes again, so make sure you leave a good tip. Which brings me to…
Having some frankly concerning convos with Uber drivers here in SF – some are saying they have to decide between food & bills, that their cut changes regularly (theyâ€™re not always told when/why) and that they donâ€™t know how much rides cost for customers.â€” Dr Carolina Are / Blogger On Pole (@bloggeronpole) October 2, 2022
Money and tipping
As you’ve probably heard already, prices in the US come with added tax and with the extra expense of having to tip. I love tipping, but find it extremely enraging that workers should have to rely on tips to make a living when they could just, you know, have a decent salary.
Left-wing preaching aside, San Francisco is an expensive city, and that’s even before you start tipping. Thanks (but no thanks) to Trussonomics, I arrived to the US at a time when the Pound Sterling was at an all-time low, meaning that what I paid in dollars was almost equivalent to what I paid in pounds: so prepare for $7 coffees, $10 beers and so on.
When you pay in places – whether that’s eat in or takeaway or, even, in some independent stalls and shops – the seller will present you with an iPad / screen / POS with tip choices (no tip, 15%, 18%, 20% and custom) and nonchalantly place a hand on them. If you are not American, it will make you feel extremely uncomfortable and make you tip as much as you can afford. So if you learn anything about this post, make sure you’re prepared to spend more than you thought you would and plan in advance.
Sleeping: Citizen M San Francisco
Having loved my previous stays in the Mission, I was going to select that area as my choice of neighbourhood – but I quickly realised how overpriced Airbnbs there were, how most hotels were either fully-booked due to a music festival (more on that later) or came with a shared bathroom for frankly extortionate fees. So, realising I was only going to be there for a long weekend after all, I opted for a central location. And I didn’t look back!
After some seriously stressful hotel shopping, I settled on the CitizenM Hotel in Ellis Street, near Powell Station and Union Square. Although I was told Powell can be quite sketchy, I couldn’t have chosen a better hotel. Being so central, CitizenM San Francisco meant getting to various neighbourhoods in less than 30 minutes (whether via cab or public transit, or even on foot).
Booking with CitizenM comes with a series of perks, like a pay when you stay option, virtual check-in and free cancellation up until 6 PM of your arrival date which is very handy in Covid-y times. When you arrive, the first floor guard will direct you to the third floor, where you will find the reception, the bar/canteen and a co-working space. There, you will meet a team of incredibly friendly staff who will go above and beyond for you. Literally everyone I’ve met was fun, had great advice about bars and restaurants, solved problems right away and was understanding when I got my check-out time wrong.
Everything at CitizenM is automated, which means that once you check in and request a room through the app, all you have to do is scan a code, pick up your key and head to your room. Sometimes this doesn’t go as seamlessly – e.g. you have to double-check cleaning is requested because sometimes it doesn’t automatically go through – but doing so wasn’t a problem for me.
CitizenM San Francisco’s rooms are on the small end of boutique hotel, but since they are high-tech, designer and fully interactive it doesn’t really feel like a problem. I booked a standard room and, was I to stay during a colder period or for a longer time, I would have really struggled with wardrobe space: it’s an open, shoulder-width closet, only coming with a few hangers, and even if the bed has a safe and plenty of storage, I am known to bring outlandish outfits and big shoes with me, so space could be a challenge for future trips.
However, I had such a good time at CitizenM that I would book again regardless. The room is extremely personalised, so much that I even had a little dancer puppet and my name on the TV screen. The bed was one of the most comfortable I’ve ever slept in, the pillows were fluffly, the room lighting and temperature could be chosen with an iPad (I’m always cold in other hotels and here I felt right at home) and, crucially, the sleeping set-up is both panoramic and jet-lag proof. The bed sits right next to a giant window with a choice of quiet or downtown views (I went for a downtown view) and has not one but two black-out curtains that go up and down at the flick of a switch. Clicking to see the heart-warming San Francisco morning light was the most wholesome way to wake up, and the room remained so dark until I chose to get up that I am really going to struggle getting used to my shutter-less London bedroom again.
CitizenM is the perfect hotel for solo travellers and young professionals. The bar has a friendly vibe that encourages talking, both with the staff and other guests – and, in fact, I had spontaneous chats with all guests I ran into, more than in any other hotel, which makes me feel like it’s a vibe the hotel goes for. The co-working space at reception is a fantastic, colourful and artistically decorated room to catch up on work and to kill time in between check-in or check-out. From here, I finished writing a couple of academic papers feeling both focused and relaxed.
Overall, the hotel feels plush without being pretentious. It’s a yes for me!
Where to pole dance in San Francisco
This is a pole dancer’s guide after all, so could I leave out pole dance studio advice? Obviously not.
Having only been in town for a weekend this time, I can only recommend the one studio where I taught: SF Pole + Dance. But I do this for a reason: because it’s really awesome.
Not only does SF Pole + Dance offer everything from hoop to silks, from choreo to tricks. It’s an incredibly welcoming studio where I felt right at home as a guest instructor, and where the student population was diverse and sex-positive. Upon walking in, SFPD students are greeted with an “our values” poster at the door (exhibit A below).
The studio encourages sex positivity and sex worker inclusion, educating their students about the origins of pole through the language they use and the style and instructors they host. It was Amy herself, the owner of SFPD, who asked me to teach a talk on platform censorship of sex and sex work on top of my heavy metal pole workshop.
In short, the space is gorgeous, welcoming, inclusive, and fun, so if you visit one studio, make it this one.
Eating and drinking
Now onto one of my favourite things: food. And there sure is plenty of that in San Francisco, one of my fave cities for food and drink.
Craftsman & Wolves
The Mission has plenty of independent coffee shops. Craftsman & Wolves is one of the few that has survived the pandemic, and that I remember loving during my 2014 trips. Go in for great coffee and yummy baked goods in a truly hip setting.
Linea Coffee Roasters
Some of the best cappuccinos I had in town were from Linea – and they were $7. Sigh.
Andytown Coffee Roasters
I have great memories of this Outer Sunset coffee shop because it’s the last place I went to before leaving San Francisco, and the US, in 2014. At the time, my Couchsurfing host worked there, helping her friend who owned it. Since then, Andytown has expanded with two more locations in SF, and the Outer Sunset outpost is now take-away only. Their sourdough is still one of the best in SF, and their coffee is still great, particularly iced oat lattes to drink while strolling on Ocean Beach!
I firmly remember queuing for half an hour to be able to sit down for coffee and a pastry at Tartine in 2014, and things haven’t changed much since then. Still one of the top eateries in town for breakfast and brunch, make sure you check it out!
La Taqueria (2889 Mission St)
Nothing to say apart from the fact that literally every person who has been to San Francisco recommends this place, so either we’re all crazy or you better go there.
Sears Fine Foods
A San Francisco institution, this time just off Union Square, Sears Fine Foods is a proper American diner. Its signature brunch dish are its Swedish Pancakes, 16 tiny fluffy pancakes with butter, maple syrup and lingonberries, a type of sweet and sour berry make the pancakes really special. Before you realise, the pancakes will be finished and you’ll be left wondering if you should order more.
SF, and its Mission area in particular, have a big Mexican community so you simply can’t visit without eating Mexican. I really enjoyed the huevos rancheros at Boogaloo‘s, which I’ve been told is a Mission brunch institution (don’t take it from me, take it from my former Couchsurfing hosts who live in the area).
Boogaloo’s is great vibes: affordable (in comparison to other SF spots), with plenty of quirky arts on the walls and with plenty of spice, it’s the best way to start your weekend. Try their signature Temple of Spuds, some very loaded spicy fries.
King of Thai Noodle House
Staff at CitizenM recommended this place in O’Farrell Street – thanks, Ricky! – and it didn’t disappoint. An affordable Thai hotspot, King of Thai Noodle House was always packed no matter what time I walked in front of it. Its pineapple fried rice is a chef specialty, its service is lovely and its dishes yummy and filling. Go for an affordable (again, on SF terms), central and no-frills meal.
On the more sophisticated end of dining, Chinalive is an enormous, sleek, designer eatery with spicy and filling tapas style Chinese food. I was treated to a meal here by a lovely fellow poler, and we went for the impossible dumplings, green beans, Dan Dan noodles and spicy cucumber. Extremely filling even to share, and one of my fave Asian meals to date.
Vesuvio North Beach
Last but not least, an iconic drinking spot: right next to SF’s historic City Lights Bookshop, Vesuvio is an excellent bar to go to with friends or alone for people watching, all set in a part dive-like, part beatnik and part decadent dÃ©cor. Sit upstairs for extra vibes.
San Francisco has its share of boutiques and crowd-pleasing big brands. Shopping there isn’t as convenient as it used to be due to the unfavourable exchange rate with the Euro and the Pound, but it’s still doable because, in many places, items are priced in the same figure in dollars as they would be in pounds, saving you a teeny bit.
A colourful Mission boutique with fantastic jeans, Scooby Doo SMG style dresses and cutesy bags, isalis is a must-visit.
If you’ve been following for a while you know I have an unhealthy obsession with Reformation – see this dress below, which I will never stop wearing.
The obsession worsened in Reformation’s Mission boutique, where sustainable luxury fashion meets tech. All items in the shop are on display, so you have to request your size to the shop assistant. You are then guided to the change-rooms, where wardrobes are fitted with some sort of robotic malarkey that ensures clothes in your size are delivered into a closet without you or the shop assistant having to lift a finger.
I had my eyes set on this number, but had to be sensible. You can always PayPal me at paypal.me/bloggeronpole if you wanted to get it for me 😛
In Downtown SF you’ll find major stores in the Westfields mall, which includes Michael Kors, Adidas, Gucci and more, and even shops like Levi’s, where I bought a couple of pairs of very American jeans with a 40% discount. Yay me.
In the Mission, the Community Thrift Store (CTS) has everything from records to Halloween costumes, from suits to Hawaiian shirts, from designer jeans for $10 to pottery. Worth a stop for a bargain, but bring a dress / skirt unless you wanna strip in front of everyone to try on some jeans (there’s no fitting rooms).
City Lights Bookstore
A SF institution, the City Lights Bookstore features beat poetry, a freedom of expression session as well as the hottest books of the moment. It’s open til late, so go in for an after-dark browse.
Dog Eared Books
An extra cute Mission bookstore with vintage and new books and a particularly impressive witchy and young adult division, Dog Eared Books is a must-visit on Valencia Street.
Things to do
San Francisco is so culturally rich that it can be very overhelming to choose where to go. Some of my favourite cultural activities in have included:
- Visiting Alcatraz, where last time I caught an Ai Wei Wei exhibition and where you can experience the very disturbing feeling of being in an isolation cell (article)
- Checking out the Beat Museum in North Beach to soak up all those Kerouac and Ginzberg vibes
- Exploring North Beach (aka Little Italy) and Chinatown, where this time I caught the #lanternstories project by Yu-Wen Wu, a Bostonian artist highlighting Asian diaspora history through her lanterns
- Visiting the Castro, San Francisco’s gaybourhood full of fab gay bars, and going to the GLBT museum, full of queer history (including about SF’s openly gay politician Harvey Milk)
- Wandering around the Mission to catch views from Mission Dolores park, visit the Mission Dolores church (very golden, with information about the area’s history and the foundation of San Francisco) and the graffiti-covered Clarion Alley
- Exploring the Haight Hashbury, where you can still see Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead’s house and catch a whiff of those Summer of Love ghosts – be aware that the Haight is even sketchier than it used to be now, so keep your wits about you
- Visiting the Sunset neighbourhood and Ocean Beach for a truly Californian landscape, which isn’t so common in foggy SF
- Going to the Golden Gate Park to catch a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge, and in particular to visit the gorgeous Japanese gardens. This time I was lucky enough to be in town during Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a completely free country music festival which may have increased prices of hotels all over town but which did provide some pretty wholesome entertainment (including a lot of women dressed as witches, which is a total mood).
What have I missed? Feel free to drop your SF tips in the comments!