Oliver Hall revisits San Francisco and finds that Californias gayest city still possesses a lot of soul. 

Getting There:

Hawaiian Airlines’ late-night departure helps us make the most of our precious days off. We finish our deadline, pack our bags, and head for the airport to make our 11.35pm departure. The route to San Francisco includes a stopover just shy of three hours in Hawaii, which means you go through all your US visa processing in Honolulu. Personally, I have always found this a quicker and more pleasant experience than doing this in any of the USs major mainland airports. 


For the overnight flight, we indulge in Hawaiian Airlines’ ( new Business Class Cabin, with lie-flat beds, personalised entertainment tablets, sustainable amenities, and signature Mai Tai’s, all of which help us land feeling refreshed and ready to take on the town.


Its been 20 years since I last touched down in San Francisco, and across those decades, the citys reputation has taken a hammering. Fentanyl, a highly addictive painkiller more powerful than heroin, was originally prescribed by doctors (some of whom received a kickback from pharmaceutical companies) until it became the number one cause of drug overdose deaths in the US. Naturally, California banned it, which led its many addicts to search for alternatives on the streets. Add to that rising rent costs and an already significant homeless population, and a lot of people will tell you, This city aint what it used to be.”

However, in the few days we spent there, San Franciscos charms still shone brightly. A city oozing creative talent, progressive thinking, and natural beauty – 20 years of tarnish didnt make me love it any less. 


Hotel Zelos

Where you stay can have a massive effect on your interpretation of a city, and I have no doubt that Hotel Zelos ( had a huge impact on my positive perception of modern-day San Francisco. Located in the bustling shopping precinct of Union Square, Hotel Zelos occupies a grand renaissance revival building, conveniently sharing its ground floor with a Trader Joe’s.

Hotel Zelos is well known to SF locals who head to their flatteringly lit, chic bar/restaurant, Dirty Habit (, for after-work cocktails. Its vibe is reminiscent of Ponsonby Roads SPQR. It is perfectly located in the SoMa district, next to major cable car stops that take you directly down to the Castro or up to Fishermans Wharf.

Wholesome Days:

The cable cars are still the most convenient way to get around SF and feel faster and more fun than Melbournes trams. We have a CityPass (, which gives us unlimited cable car rides plus access to a wealth of tourist spots that we are keen to explore on our first day.

We stop for pictures at the famously windy Lombard Street and its eight hairpin bends within one block, then check out the SF MOMA, which lacks the magnitude of New Yorks original. Then on, to check out the sea lions at Pier 39 and enjoy a quick drop-in at the conveniently positioned Aquarium of the Bay while we wait for our SF Bay Cruise to depart. All of these attractions were either free or included in our CityPass, and the cruise that loops around the Golden Gate Bridge is a must. 

For some ostentatious modern art that is available for purchase, you cant go past ZK Gallery ( It is on the way to the worlds greatest chocolate fudge sundae served at Ghirardellis Chocolate Experience ( If you thought you could push that enormous calorie intake to the back of your mind, Californias 14% health tax is quick to remind us what we need to burn off, so, on foot, we take a pleasant waterside walk (at pace) over to the Palace of Fine Arts, an impressive Greco-Roman-style monument built in 1915, which houses outdoor concerts and theatre in the summer. 

Naturally, no SF sightseeing trip is complete without a visit to Alcatraz. Its not changed much since my last visit two decades ago, so we hope to spook’ things up by choosing the nighttime tour, which takes you over at sunset and lets you explore the penitentiary in the dark! It lacked the fear factor I was hoping for, but Alcatraz remains one of those landmarks that everyone has to visit once. 

Euphoric Nights:

We may have soaked in the beautiful architecture, misty harbour, and stunning scenery, but when the sun goes down, San Francisco is only just getting started!

Live music at Tupelo

We head to Tupelo (, a bar thats live music has been highly recommended by locals. Tupelo has bands playing every night and sits directly between Professor Seagulls Smartshop (, which sells natural psychedelics, and the high-end cannabis dispensary, North Beach Pipeline ( All three venues attract bohemian-academic types, who drift dreamily out of those stores and into Tupelo to really feelthe music. 

On a Monday evening, Tupelos band has a female lead singer specialising in Sam Cooke covers and Motown Soul. They begin as a four-piece, and throughout the night, expand as bass players, trumpeters, and saxophonists emerge from the audience to join in. If this is Heaven, take me now.

What about the Gay Bars?

Folsom Street Fair, San Francisco

Heaven or not, you cant visit the city that produces the eye-popping Folsom Street Fair (which celebrates leather and BDSM every September) without at least glancing at its gay scene. Here are a few venues you cant miss:

Unfortunately, we are visiting during the week, which means we are missing out on experiencing Oasis (, a cabaret lounge serving the citys best drag shows that morphs into a nightclub in the early hours (open Thursday through Saturday).

Oasis San Francisco

Locals are quick to recommend the outrageously long daily happy hour (from midday to 7pm!) at Last Call Bar (, a quaint, friendly neighbourhood watering hole since the seventies with an open wood fire and jukebox.

Wild Side West ( has been a longstanding home for SFs lesbian community for 40 years, with a lush (Garnet Stationesque) back garden.

For history buffs, a visit to the Twin Peaks Tavern ( is essential. In 1972, it became the first gay bar in the Castro to remove its window coverings, allowing the world to see what queer life was really like.

For twinks and gym bunnies, Beaux ( is calling your name. On weekends, the classy cocktail lounge is cleared to make way for go-go boys and EDM beats.

The Aussie-owned and operated Lone Star Saloon ( is the destination for bears, especially on Sundays when the back patio is jumping, and thats not a euphemism!

A Fond Farewell:

Around San Francisco, there is plenty more to explore. We take the beautiful Pacific Coast Highway drive down to Los Angeles, but for those with less free time, locals recommend a jaunt to the laidback Sonoma Wine Country Region, which looks particularly stunning in autumn and is just a 60 mile drive from the city.

For information visit and follow @SFTravel on socials #AlwaysSF

How to Get There :

Hawaiian Airlines flies 3 x weekly from Auckland direct to Honolulu with convenient connections to Californias Ontario Airport, which is just an hours drive from Palm Springs. Flying Hawaiian includes the airlines award-winning service, complimentary meals and beverages, and a free checked luggage allowance of 2 x 32kg bags per passenger. Flights are operated by wide-bodied Airbus A330 aircraft with 192 Main Cabin seats in a couples-friendly 2x4x2 configuration, 68 of Hawaiians popular and affordable Extra Comfort seats, and 18 lie-flat Business Class seats in the Premium Cabin.