A Crash Course into
San Francisco’s Radical History

Beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge
Culture & Art
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By Virgin Hotels

With the February opening of Virgin Hotels San Francisco—our second property, following Chicago—we thought we’d celebrate with a crash course history lesson of this iconic, radical, pioneering Northern California city by the bay. Our founder Richard Branson says that San Francisco’s spirit embodies the Virgin brand. From the Spanish explorers and Gold Rush pioneers to the Beat generation, hippie counterculture and social activism, San Francisco is eternally avant-garde and always plays to the beat of its own drum.

“It’s an odd thing but anyone who disappears is said to be in San Francisco.” – Oscar Wilde

Spanish Colonists, 1776

Spanish explorers led by Gaspar de Portolà arrived in San Francisco and established El Presidio Real fortress (today, it’s Presidio Park at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge) and Mission San Francisco de Asís, which is a functioning Roman Catholic parish today and San Francisco’s oldest building.

Visit: Today, the Mission District is home to some of the best authentic tacos and Mexican food in San Francisco. El Gallo Giro is a taco truck tucked away on 23rd Street with out-of-this-world carnitas.

California Gold Rush, 1849

San Francisco became the largest city on the West Coast thanks to the Gold Rush of 1849 when the population ballooned from 1,000 homesteaders to 25,000 prospectors in a single year.

World War II Naval Port, 1942 -1945

San Francisco was a major embarkation point for servicemen shipping out to the “Pacific Theater” from Fort Mason during World War II, resulting in another population boom.

Visit: Stroll along the iconic Fisherman’s Wharf and visit the Maritime Museum located on the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Afterwards, swing by the classic Buena Vista for clam chowder served in a San Francisco sourdough bread bowl.

Beat Generation, 1950s

The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded City Lights Booksellers in North Beach in 1953, creating a gathering place for the Beats—a post-war generation of non-conformist, hedonist-bohemian, spiritual seekers and artists—and publishing some of their brightest voices including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

“It seemed like a matter of minutes when we began rolling in the foothills before Oakland and suddenly reached a height and saw stretched out ahead of us the fabulous white city of San Francisco on her eleven mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato-patch fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness in the late afternoon of time.”  – Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Visit: Today, City Lights Booksellers retains its revolutionary spirit as a creative hub with new releases, hard-to-find indie books and an extensive poetry section, including their own Pocket Poets series.

Image of hippies in San Francisco

Hippie Counterculture, 1960s

The Beat generation laid the groundwork for the hippie counterculture that would sweep through San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in 1967 during the Summer of Love. Opposed to the Vietnam War and the capitalist status quo, the hippies embraced free love, folk music and LSD.

“San Francisco was where the social hemorrhaging was showing up. San Francisco was where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves ‘hippies.’” – Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

The Monterey Pop Festival, held just south of San Francisco, was the culminating event of that summer introducing the world to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who and Otis Redding, as well as Grateful Dead, The Mamas and the Papas and Jefferson Airplane.

Visit: For indie music today, head to The Independent in Haight-Ashbury with acts ranging from G. Love & Special Sauce to Psychedelic Porn Crumpets. For jazz in a hip, speakeasy-style setting, head to Club Deluxe, which also boasts a killer cocktail menu.

Gay Rights Movement, 1970s

The Castro District developed into a gay community in the 1970s on the heels of the hippie counterculture. Harvey Milk rose to notoriety as a gay rights activist and the unofficial “Mayor of the Castro,” He became the first openly gay elected official in California in 1977 before his tragic assassination in 1978—laying the groundwork for modern day LGBT activism.

“My name is Harvey Milk—and I want to recruit you… The gay doctors, the gay lawyers, the gay judges, gay bankers, gay architects … I hope that every professional gay will say ‘enough’, come forward and tell everybody, wear a sign, let the world know. Maybe that will help.” – Harvey Milk

Visit: The Castro is still a thriving gay community today. Stroll down the Rainbow Honor Walk (it’s like the Hollywood Walk of Fame for stars and allies of the LGBTQ community) and enjoy a night out at Twin Peaks Tavern, one of the San Francisco’s original gay bars.

Tech Hub & Michelin Stars, Today

Today, San Francisco is a tech hub, home to the HQs of Airbnb, Uber, Yelp, Twitter, Pinterest, Lyft, Wikipedia, Reddit, Dropbox, Square and many others.

It’s also home to the most three-star Michelin restaurants in the US, to every gastronome’s delight.

Visit: After a full day of exploration, enjoy a cocktail back at Virgin Hotels San Francisco at Commons Club, a contemporary, lively environment situated at the main entrance of the hotel.

“A city is where you can sign a petition, boo the chief justice, fish off a pier, gape at a hippopotamus, buy a flower at the corner, or get a good hamburger or a bad girl at 4 a.m. A city is where sirens make white streaks of sound in the sky and foghorns speak dark grays. San Francisco is such a city.” – Herb Caen, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist


Writer: Shayne Benowitz

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