We’ve just spent a week exploring the cities of Vancouver and San Francisco. But which did we like best?
Both cities are set on peninsulas close to the Pacific, with sheltered waterways on one or more sides. Vancouver has the more pleasing backdrop, with mountains and islands all around, whilst San Francisco has the benefit of having other cities (San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley), as well as arguably the world’s best wine-growing region – Napa Valley – on its doorstep.
Both cities are melting pots – and all the more interesting for it. For instance, 30% of Vancouver’s population is Chinese and San Francisco has a huge Mexican population (let’s not forget that California was part of Mexico until the 1840s). It seemed to us that Vancouver had a very calm, yet confident, population. Nobody seemed in a rush to get anywhere and everyone seemed happy to pass the time with us world-curious Brits.
The San Franciscans that we spoke to were also friendly and welcoming, but both of us were very shocked at the gulf between rich (and we’re talking VERY rich here, as nearby Silicon Valley has brought in huge wealth) and poor. We witnessed long lines of desperate people outside charities that were offering food and shelter. The lack of a social safety net left a deep impression on us. However, one San Fran resident that we totally warmed to was an elderly African American gentleman who played Soca music in Union Square very loud as he grooved to the beat on his mobility scooter.
Things to do
There is plenty to do in both places, as you might expect. One of the things we love doing in cities is finding contrasting, vibrant neighbourhoods to mooch around in. We’d recommend Gastown and Granville Island in Vancouver and Russian Hill and Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.
Top ‘must-sees’ include the gloriously tacky Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz and the amazing trolley system in San Francisco, whilst Vancouver has beautiful Stanley Park and a huge amount of public art.
And in terms of visiting neighbouring areas, Vancouver has skiing nearby and a seaplane trip to the provincial capital, Victoria, is highly recommended. San Francisco has the beautiful Muir Woods, home to the giant sequoias and, of source, wine country.
Food & Drink
Top quality food, as well as simpler, more affordable fare can be found throughout the city. One of the food highlights was a takeaway Indian meal in a plastic tray in Granville Island market. Incredibly delicious … and authentic.
Craft beers are prevalent … and good … in both cities, but when it comes to wine, there can only be one winner. Sorry, Vancouver, we liked the British Columbia whites (reds not so much), but the wines from Napa and Sonoma are superb.
Both cities have easily accessible large international airports and also cruise ship terminals. They also both have rapid transit systems and although we didn’t drive whilst there, we could see that that would be pretty manageable. We found cabs to be a bit cheaper in San Fran.
San Francisco is a lively, liberal city and is large enough that you can discover whatever vibe is your jam (man!). We personally preferred the more laid back, but friendly Vancouver. An evening spent bar-hopping on cocktails had us having some great chats with bar staff and customers.
- Both cities are great when seen from the water, so make sure you hop on a boat.
- Wines from Sonoma are often a little cheaper than Napa options and in our opinion are just as good.
- Try eating little and often, as opposed to grand meals. You’ll get to try more options that way. And both cities are geared up for street food.
- Visit the charming and unique steam-powered clock in Gastown, Vancouver.
Overall, we really enjoyed San Francisco, but actually … we left our heart in Vancouver.
Have you been to either city? What did you like about it? Did you have any disappointments? We’d love to hear from you.