The Senses of San Fran
January 30, 2011 12:35 AM   Subscribe

What sort of sensory things - tastes, smells, sounds, you know the deal - are reminiscent or representative of San Francisco?

I'm looking for the San Fran equivalent of pizza and hotdogs (New York) or Vegemite, cane toads, and pavlova (Australia) or tabla music (India). I'm especially interested in things that are a bit more injokey (as in you really have to be local to San Francisco to understand or get the reference) but even more popular answers are fine, just as long as it's not the Golden Gate Bridge!
posted by divabat to Travel & Transportation around San Francisco, CA (45 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Saltwater taffy? Ghirardelli chocolate?
posted by Rhaomi at 12:51 AM on January 30, 2011

Best answer: Off the top of my head (and yes, some of these aren't really senses): fog, bushman, sourdough bread, searching for a parking space, that moment around 4pm when the fog rolls in and all the tourists in shorts and a t-shirt run to go buy phenomenally overpriced sweatshirts, lack of seasons, Bay to Breakers, issues like the health hazards of wi-fi, the merits of happy meals, plastic bags, and bottled water are perfectly rational topics for city government to spend their time on, the pride parade, wearing a lightweight jacket all the time, having a bus driver ask you for directions as to where their bus is supposed to go, cable car bells, buses packed with Chinese ladies with pink plastic bags, the peculiar sound of a BART horn, the voice of the Giants announcer, Toyota Prius, clam chowder, fog horns, Beach Blanket Babylon, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Starship.
posted by zachlipton at 1:02 AM on January 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

The stench of the seals at Pier 39. Man, those things stink!
posted by essexjan at 1:02 AM on January 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

Sourdough bread? Fernet Branca?
posted by aubilenon at 1:02 AM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I live in the Upper Haight / Cole Valley and I love when I can hear the fog horns.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 1:16 AM on January 30, 2011

Seconding Fernet! SF consumes 25% of all Fernet consumed in the US, IIRC.

Foghorns in the distance. Eucalyptus trees after a big rain. Stale urine on public streets. Hundreds of motorcycles at 4 a.m., Easter morning. Frank Chu. Farmer's markets. While the rest of the world tends to use the Golden Gate Bridge as an symbol of SF, locals seem to use Sutro Tower more often. Anchor Steam. Musee Mechanique.
posted by mollymayhem at 1:26 AM on January 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

Fog horns, fog horns, fog horns! Also: bums lying on the street and their associated odors, neon flashing signs on corner shops in the Tenderloin, walking uphill, a faint wafting of weed from the open apartment window you're walking underneath, Fernet for sure, B2B for sure, figs and goat cheese, dogs in the park, the MUNI announcer lady-voice, murals along Market Street, rainbow flags hanging from streetlamps, the pyramid building...
posted by samthemander at 1:27 AM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Fresh fried calimari, street market fish tacos, fog, seals, the slow whooshing 'ahhhhh' in my mind, a dozen different languages, vertical rainfall hitting my hat and shoulders, the stickyness of a tiled restaurant floor in Chinatown grabbing at the feet, the unique crisp texture of day old vegetables being pierced by fork tines, ...
posted by buzzman at 3:23 AM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

The sound of the cables under the street along the cable-car routes.
posted by aqsakal at 3:24 AM on January 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

Boards on top with fins forward.
Fresh Air in stereo from all the cars surrounding you while stuck at the toll bridge.
The colors of the MUNI logo and the sounds of the tracks and cables.
Buskers in the BART station and the long cream-colored tiled walkways with dirt and wet and empty 40s in paper bags.
Chippy at the Pier, Swoops the attack bird and the Ha-Ha Funny Funny Bush Man.
"Hey, can I bum a smoke/25¢/ride?"
Filthy sidewalks that sparkle.
Taco trucks.

This reads like a messed ode to The City (that I so dearly miss).
posted by iamkimiam at 4:59 AM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

The billowing, cold, foggy clouds that envelop you on the west-bound Bay Bridge on a July afternoon always feel like home to me.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 5:25 AM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

The San Francisco Twins are also high on my list.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 7:01 AM on January 30, 2011

Streets so steep they need stairs on the sidewalk.
Mission burritos.
The fog.
Microclimates in general - where you can go from sunny to miserably damp and foggy and back on a ten-minute car ride.
Unabashed, unashamed liberalism.
The Castro district. While there are gayborhoods all over America's cities, there's only one Castro.
The fish markets in Chinatown.
The produce markets everywhere.
Baker Beach, and the reasons you probably don't want to go too far out towards the Golden Gate side of the beach.
The everpresent tourist traffic jam on Lombard & Hyde.
posted by deadmessenger at 7:05 AM on January 30, 2011

This thread is making me miss San Francisco even more than I usually do.
posted by deadmessenger at 7:07 AM on January 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

It's been a while but definitely the urine smell around certain BART stations ;) The foghorns, and bells on the cable cars. Also, the views...oh the views!
posted by freya_lamb at 7:57 AM on January 30, 2011

Here you go!
posted by bukvich at 8:06 AM on January 30, 2011


Visually: anytime I see normal styled houses and buildings built parallel (one side of the fascade is uphill, one side is downhill, like this) to very hilly roads, I think San Francisco. Whereas, when I see the same ones built perpendicular (ie, the front of the house is on a relatively flat street, and the rear of the house is hanging off the back of a hill), or modern architecture built into the hills like this, I think of LA.
posted by gjc at 8:08 AM on January 30, 2011

Patchouli. Seriously.
posted by googly at 8:20 AM on January 30, 2011

Nothing new to add here but sourdough bread; food trucks in general and taco trucks in particular; farmer's markets; hills, driving up hills in a manual, walking up hills; cable car bells; public art - the hearts that were all over town, the giant iron lady with chains for hair on Octavia in Hayes Valley, the three headed/six armed buddha in front of City Hall, the squiggly thing in front of the War Memorial Opera; the homeless, the smell of the homeless, the homeless sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk, the homeless peeing/pooing in corners; Rainbow Grocery; the fog; the always needing a jacket, silly tourists who don't realize this; 25 cent tea at Nordstrom; the little bowls of consomme served as an amuse bouche and the lobster club sandwich at Neiman Marcus in the Rotunda at Christmas; popovers at the Cliffhouse; beers at the Zeitgest especially if the tamale lady is there and even if she's not; the tamale lady; Bloody Mary's at Zuni's' margaritas at Tommy's on Geary; Lucca's italian grocery on Valencia; Folsom Street Fair where public flogging is a charitable event, and the free porn, paddles and or whips; Bay to Breakers; Irish coffee, Fernet Branca; bread from Tartine, anything from Tartine; Belden Lane and all the nearby French places; Crissy Field; Fort Funston for dogs; Little Saigon and all the pho places.

I love this city.
posted by shoesietart at 8:51 AM on January 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

And cioppino, can't forget cioppino especially from Tadich Grill.
posted by shoesietart at 8:54 AM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hot dog, caramel corn, paddle boats and ducks at Stow Lake. 4th of July fireworks from Bernal Heights (reflected in the fog to the west and off the bay to the east). The sounds and sights of the wild parrots. Rice crackers and green tea at the Japanese Tea Garden. Union Square at Christmas time. The lobbies of the Nob Hill hotels. The smell after the rain. Tony Bennett's heart. The Mission cemetery. Cobblestones (yes!). The Tuesday Noon Siren (it's Tuesday! it's Noon!). The Filbert Steps and their cousins throughout the City. Herb Caen. Cocktails at dusk at the Top of the Mark.

(BTW, not that it really matters, but to some of us old-timers 'San Fran' is just as jarring to the ears as 'Frisco'. But call it whatever you want -- it's always 'The City' to us.)
posted by trip and a half at 9:06 AM on January 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

Fog and the scent of meat grilling as you walk past all the taquerias in the Mission.
posted by rtha at 9:48 AM on January 30, 2011

The smell of eucalyptus trees is an instant SF trigger for me.

Also the eternal MUNI dialectic - "Back door!" "Step down!" "Back door!" "Step down!"
posted by yarrow at 10:14 AM on January 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

The sound of BART trains whooshing up through the sidewalk grates. Cable car bells. The smell of crab cooking at Fisherman's Wharf. The feel of fog on your face on a summer afternoon. Sourdough. The smell of the Anchor Steam brewery. Cappucino. Those swirly purple squares in the sidewalk. The jungle smell of the Conservatory of Flowers. Guys drumming on buckets. The sound of firecrackers at the Chinese New Year parade.
posted by corey flood at 10:21 AM on January 30, 2011

I don't know how you'd encapsulate it, but something about those seals that come back every season to lay about in the sun. Wonderful.
posted by ifjuly at 10:57 AM on January 30, 2011

And I don't know how to fit this in tidily either, but I know lots of SFers who love Vertigo almost entirely in a sentimental "hey that's an homage to my home!" sort of way. I never noticed it the first time around before I was familiar with the place, but years later rewatching it it really does feel in part like a big love letter to the Bay Area.
posted by ifjuly at 10:58 AM on January 30, 2011

ifjuly: Vertigo, indeed. There's even a wonderful book about Hitchcock's San Francisco. Every now and then, the Castro theatre screens Vertigo -- jolly fun. When Jimmy Stewart's character easily finds a parking spot directly in front of his girlfriend's apartment building in North Beach, the entire audience cracks up!
posted by trip and a half at 11:14 AM on January 30, 2011

Answers upthread cover most of the city, especially areas where visitors would go, so here's the view from my quiet residential area: hills, lots of hills. Sweeping views of other hills. Lots of space and sky between the hills.

Skies are dramatic. The weather comes in from the Pacific Ocean, often bringing a smell of the sea with it. I can sometimes smell the ocean from my front porch. Windy, always windy, never still and close. Maybe foggy, maybe rainy, but the air is always moving.

Sometimes the fog spills over the hills but evaporates before it actually reaches the ground. It's like perpetual motion, always pouring, never landing. SFX in real life.

I never feel hemmed in by a city with all this salt air whipping past, big skies, and long views to the next hill.
posted by Quietgal at 11:16 AM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

The scent of tamales from the Tamale Lady's cart; the oh-so-bad-yet-oh-so-good smell of bacon-wrapped hotdogs along Mission St.; the line in the sky where the fog ends and the sunshine begins, right about where Noe Valley meets the Mission; seeing people shamelessly smoke weed pretty much everywhere; every profile on OkCupid featuring at least one candid shot of a picnic at Dolores Park; being straight and hanging out at a gay bar and not even thinking twice about it; going on a (straight) date to a gay bar and then making out in back; pho, oh dear god the pho, everything your soul and belly craves on a cold windy August day; going to the sketchiest neighborhood in the city because that's where the best (and cheapest) food is; apartments where the shower is in a different room from the toilet; Bumjovy.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:47 PM on January 30, 2011

Oh how I wish I could move back there. Grew up there.


Sourdough. The Japanese tea garden. The Rainbow Tunnel (Waldo). Muir Woods.

And that fog and salt smell
posted by zombieApoc at 2:02 PM on January 30, 2011

Mission in the rain
posted by zombieApoc at 2:23 PM on January 30, 2011

Seconding hobo urine, the fishy/sea smells of the wharf, and the inimitable sounds of the cable cars—not just the bells, but the wonderful warm, hard rumble.

I would say the wind and the air, but it's futile to try to recreate or describe it.

Also seconding everyone who has been thrown into yearning nostalgia by this thread.
posted by dephlogisticated at 3:06 PM on January 30, 2011

oh god i'm in europe now with a cold and this thread is making me miss home (and my wonderful cozy bed) dearly. some things that remind me of SF: the fog horns for sure, the wild parrots screeching through the Embarcadero to the Marina, Bay to Breakers race, the 38 Geary bus (being elbow to elbow with the stubborn Chinese grandmothers), Golden Gate Bakery with the best egg tarts in the Bay Area, Foursquare check-ins, abysmal AT&T service in the Mission because everyone's on their iPhones, all the ultimate frisbee and soccer games on the Marina Green, and the entire glorious month of October - San Francisco's real summer - the best time to go on a sailing cruise on the sparkling Bay.
posted by hampanda at 4:43 PM on January 30, 2011

The kayakers in the creek behind the Giants stadium trying to catch a fly ball.
posted by arcticseal at 5:51 PM on January 30, 2011

I've heard that Rice A Roni is a San Francisco treat. But, I was really just coming in to mention the stinky seals.
posted by Mael Oui at 10:24 PM on January 30, 2011

Weed. Pot. Marijuana. Tea. Grass. Everywhere you go in SF you will smell it. The town seems like it runs on the stuff.
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:16 PM on January 30, 2011

And seconding the Tuesday Noon Siren.
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:18 PM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mini Coopers
Smart Cars
Squirrels With No Shame Whatsoever
Fog That Manages to Smell Both Impossibly Clean and Impossibly Industrial
Salt Water Rain
That Faint Smell of Fabric Cleaner That Lingers in BART Seat Cushions
posted by patronuscharms at 2:32 AM on January 31, 2011

To the hum of cables under the street along cable car routes, I'd like to add the crackle of MUNI buses' electrical leashes, and the weird thrum of the buses as they labor uphill. The smell of dried salted fish in Chinatown. Sandwiches from Molinari Delicatessen. Brandy-spiked cappuccino at Tosca and Anchor Steam at Spec's Twelve Adler Museum Cafe. The smell of books downstairs at City Lights. The smell of eucalyptus, cheap weed, and patchouli at the west end of Golden Gate Park. The smell of expensive weed wafting from the bike messengers at Market & Montgomery. The San Francisco burrito, and arguing over who makes the best one. The smell of garlic fries at the ballpark.
posted by Mendl at 1:08 PM on January 31, 2011

Response by poster: aww wow thank you everyone. I'm working on a video/performance piece for a project that involves San Francisco, and now I'm gonna have to figure out how to evoke these ideas into performance art!
posted by divabat at 4:38 AM on February 1, 2011

Would love to see it on projects once you're finished.
posted by arcticseal at 5:06 AM on February 1, 2011

Val Diamond's hats on Beach Blanket Babylon.
posted by phliar at 1:19 PM on February 1, 2011

The kayakers in the creek behind the Giants stadium trying to catch a fly ball.

posted by mollymayhem at 10:37 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, but there's a pier behind them so it looks like a creek (plus I had crap seats).
posted by arcticseal at 11:09 PM on February 1, 2011

To be fair, it's the mouth of Mission Creek. Officially, it's named China Basin, but everyone calls it McCovey Cove.
posted by rtha at 6:47 AM on February 2, 2011

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