Most cities worth their salt have at least 3 iconic neighbourhoods. It's sort of the barometer for what elevates a city past "interesting" and into "unmistakable". New York has Greenwich, Little Italy, Times Square, among many others. Toronto has Church-Wellesley, Yorkville and Kensington. San Francisco has Chinatown, Fisherman's Wharf and, of course, Haight-Ashbury.
As your parents or yoga instructor will attest, Haight-Ashbury was the nerve center for the Summer of Love in 1967 that produced a generation of peace loving, anti-establishment folks called hippies. Going by a few names, The Haight, Upper Haight or Hashbury as Hunter S. Thompson called it, was home to Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin among several other bands of the time. While the Dead only lived at their Ashbury St. home from 1966 to 1968, it was while they lived at that old, purple Victorian house that their debut album, The Grateful Dead, was released.
Just down the street from Haight-Ashbury is Golden Gate Park, the site of the Human Be-In counterculture event that drew upwards of 25,000 students, poets, musicians and all sorts of other angel headed hipsters from all over the world to the park back on January 14, 1967. If you make your way to the park today, just follow the sound of tambourines and bongos to find the drum circle at Hippie Hill, the place where Timothy Leary famously told the crowd to, "Turn on, tune in, drop out."
Why the Haight?
Named for the intersection of two streets commemorating early San Franciscan leaders (Henry Haight and Munroe Ashbury), the neighbourhood was a haven for students and transients due to the cheap rent & housing costs of the time. World War II had seen the already impoverished neighbourhood's old Victorian homes chopped up and retrofitted with multi-unit apartments to house workers. By the mid-60s, with the drug and rock & roll sub-cultures bubbling to the surface, the cheap rooms and growing anti-establishment sentiment in the Haight was like a giant neon OPEN sign to the high school and college students from all over who were out on spring break. With the bohemians firmly entrenched, it soon became the epicenter of the counterculture movement, culminating with the Summer of Love in 1967.
What to expect
The neighbourhood itself is fairly small, if you remain on Haight St. Comprised mostly of large, ornate, Victorian-style homes, it just sort of appears out of nowhere. One minute you're walking alone, westward on Haight and the next, you're surrounded by tourists and locals all navigating toward or away from this hippie Mecca. Reaching the famous intersection is kind of like reaching Broadway in NYC. You stand around for a bit, looking in all directions, pondering all the famous feet that have treaded there before and then it's back to wandering. If there's one activity that I can recommend in this neighbourhood, it's wander. There are so many niches of culture and history tucked into this neighbourhood that the tie-dye is almost palpable.
Dozens of shops line the streets so there's no excuse if you don't come back with a souvenir for Mom & Dad. With the Golden Gate Park so close by, I highly recommend you walk that few extra blocks, find a patch of grass you can spread out on for an hour or two and just kick off your shoes and enjoy the atmosphere. Cafes, bars and restaurants are also popular with the locals but everybody's treated with the same respect and generosity regardless of where they hail from. Everyone's a traveller here.
How to get there
Since it's named after two streets it's a pretty straightforward trip. My recommended mode of transportation in San Francisco (well, any city really) is walking. There's so much to see along the way, whichever way you come from, that walking to Haight-Ashbury is a trip on its own.
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Map of Haight-Ashbury
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Travis Snelling is the cofounder of TripAtlas.com and is based in Toronto, Canada. When not stuck in the office wearing shoes he's out on adventures with his camera looking for new drinks, dishes and experiences.
Located: Toronto Canada
Likes: photography, history, culture, cuisine, adventure