Independent travel for independent minds

There is a bridge adored and famed (SLEATER KINNEY)

The jewel in the NorCal crown; the city where Tony Bennett so carelessly left a major organ; spiritual home of the Burning Man festival; 24/7 live art show; hipster haven and playground for Peter Pans. The Golden Gate, in the Golden State, ladies and gentlemen, we present to you the one and only San Francisco. You can love her, you can leave her, but you’ll never forget her.

San Fran' (don't call it Frisco) is a city where you turn a corner and walk into 150 guys and gals in wedding dresses on a pub crawl; where they have a parade almost every week (St Stupid's Day is a hoot). Look beyond the cheesiness of Pier 39 and you'll find a city that's hyperactive with artistic and political happenings. From techno raves in giant shipyard hangars to poetry readings by ex-Diggers, even on a foggy day SF will seduce you and make you forget a world exists beyond The Bay. And all in a manageable area that makes it easy to go from that gallery opening with the free booze to an Indie Fest screening, before finishing off with a roller disco.

City Lights is the grand-daddy of 'em all. The legendary Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still to be seen hanging out in the Beats' famous North Beach stomping ground. Publishers of Ginsberg's groundbreaking trial-provoking poem "Howl" in the 50s, it's a beacon of literary freedom. Ferlinghetti still performs readings and the observant may spot him sharing a coffee with famous multi-lingual poet and translator Jack Hirschman.

Crossing town to the Mission District and the quietly cool Valencia Street, pop into Dog Eared Books. Bookpacking fell upon a cheap 25th anniversary edition of Kerouac classic and Beat-era must-read "On The Road". While you're there, be sure to look in the Pirate Store and check out the amazing murals on Clarion Street, near the community thrift store.

Cafe Society
In North Beach there’s the legendary Vesuvio which is just across the mural-festooned Kerouac Alley (see above) from City Lights. Over the road is the fascinating Cafe Trieste with its famous Saturday afternoon opera. If you stay long enough, you're guaranteed to meet some characters: Bookpacking met a poetess who hung with Kerouac, and the guys who wrote OS X for Apple. Nearby Tosca sometimes sees Sean Penn pop in, just up the road from Coppola's HQ and restaurant, while Specs is another bar with a lot of history.

Valencia Street has some great cafes too, but if you want fantastic coffee then you've got to head up to Philz on 24th Street (near the junction with Mission). Bookpacking still harks back to a mint-flavoured cup we had 18 months ago. That's how good it was.

Europeans will feel very at home in SF's bar culture. Every flavour is catered for lounge/cocktail/gay/lesbian/Irish/Hispanic etc. Microbrews are readily available and you won't go wrong with a local beer like Anchor Steam or Sierra Nevada. Brits need to leave behind any pre-conceived Budweiser stereotypes in this city and throw themselves head first into the melee. Most people slide out of bars, but arriving feet first at Slide Lounge is a fun gimmick, while The Saloon opposite Trieste is great for down-dirty blues and feeling like you're really in America.

At the Beauty Bar, get your nails done while you party. Bring ID though, it will be checked, even if you look 30+. Polk Street is good for a crawl with the Hemlock Tavern and the arty Space Gallery.

There's a huge Latino population, especially in enclaves like The Mission. Which means great Mexican munching. After your coffee at Philz grab some authentic local food, washed down with a glass of Horchata. Then you'll see what it really means to enjoy a burrito. Oh, and you won't need to eat for the rest of the day.

Bookpacking stayed at USA Hostels and had a lot of fun. There's also the Green Tortoise which runs bus trips across the rest of this big big country.

Around town
For literary lovers, the Beat Museum is a must. Hear all about Howl, deliberate on Desolation Angels.

The MOMA has some excellent contemporary art, and the stories behind the works are brought to life by the docents. Do take some time to find the indie galleries, and the boozily-fun openings.

Take a mural tour (see pics) round the edgily-trendy Mission District with the good people of Precita Eyes Precita Eyes, who are trying to make a difference. The 400+ murals of SF tell the history of America - from Conquistadores to The Depression to AIDS to Iraq.

Hire a bike and cycle through the Presidio and over the bridge to Sausalito. Twee now, but Weathermen fugitives hid out on houseboats there as the US tore itself apart over Vietnam.

Catch a gig at the legendary Fillmore, famous for its one-off gig posters.

Getting around
Bookpacking thinks there's something inherently romantic about trams and
trolleybuses. The black lines of the catenary curves repeating themselves into infinity against the bluest of skies... SF has a modern subway (BART), ane extensive bus network (Muni) but the real stars are period-piece trams with wooden interiors and beautifully bright exteriors. Oozing character they rumble along the Embarcadero or up to The Castro. And of course there are the cable cars to lift you up those steep hills immortalised in Steve McQueen's Bullitt.

Yosemite (pictured) is near, when you need some nature, as is Lake Tahoe. Portland makes a nice stop on the way (kind of) to Seattle if you're enjoying the leftfield vibe. Alternatively, there's always Vegas to the west and LA to the south if you need a bit of plastic fantastic after all that earnest intellectualising. The Pacific Coast Highway is a classic drive that takes you past the Kerouac-linked location of Big Sur, and through the Santa Barbara setting of the movie Sideways. Once you reach LA, put aside a whole day to marvel at the vast collection in the scenic setting of the impressive Getty Museum. Further south, sunny San Diego's star is rising fast.

Essential reading/viewing/listening
Dharma Bums – Kerouac's story of the search for Buddhist fulfilment amid the frenetic nightlife of 50s SF

nything by Janice Joplin or The Grateful Dead
Find out what's happening in town from the listings in the (free) SF Bay Guardian