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Parklet in San Francisco
Photograph: Noah Christman, Courtesy Flickr/SPUR

Parklets, politics and weed: Why San Francisco is the best city in the world right now

High vaccination rates paired with plenty of outdoor dining and quality cannabis make SF the ideal place to be in 2021.

Written by
Clara Hogan
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San Francisco has long been a beacon of progressive ideas, inclusiveness, and innovation. Those values – not to mention the stellar restaurants, endless hiking options, and trendy dispensaries – were all reasons that respondents in the 2021 Time Out Index named it 'the best city in the world' in 2021. 

Of course, the City by the Bay has its fair share of issues (homelessness, unaffordable housing and increasingly bad air quality during fire season tend to dominate the headlines) — but what city doesn't? What makes San Francisco stand out is the way it’s responded, particularly to the unprecedented events of the past year.

In 2020, leaders implemented one of the most aggressive (and effective) Covid-19 responses in the country, and residents came together to keep the city’s spirit and culture alive. Residents pedestrianized streets to create more room for outdoor gatherings, built beautiful parklets for al fresco dining and imbibing, painted boarded-up storefronts with murals, and even shared communal sourdough starters to fuel the baking craze. 

San Francisco is, in many ways, the ideal spot to ride out the pandemic with year-round mild weather, a thriving restaurant and take-out scene, high-quality cannabis, and endless, accessible, adventures in nature – from hikes in wine country to days spent lounging on the beach. Now, as the city enjoys high vaccination rates (and rules banning the unvaccinated from many indoor spaces), it’s one of the safest places to enjoy the kind of city life we've all been missing. 

Why SF is the best city in the world right now

An aggressive Covid response

San Francisco led the country in its strict response to the pandemic, setting the nation’s first shelter-in-place order back in March 2020. The shutdowns and regulations continued for most of the year, and while not easy on the city’s businesses, they have been successful in keeping the crisis more under control than elsewhere (SF was one of only a few major cities that never ran out of hospital beds). Once vaccines became available, San Francisco got shots in arms through one of the largest mass vaccination sites in the country and community-based outreach, resulting in one of the highest vaccination rates in the USA – 80 percent of residents are now fully inoculated. The city also requires people to show proof of vaccination before entering indoor businesses such as restaurants, bars and gyms – it's strict, but effective. 

A community that rallied in hard times
Photograph: Clara Rice

A community that rallied in hard times

When Covid brought darkness, San Franciscans worked to bring light. Residents posted masked honey bears (a staple street art figure) in their windows to show solidarity, and even hung sourdough starters on trees and telephone poles to help their neighbors embark on a new quarantine hobby. One of the most innovative examples of community mutual aid was the launch of the SF New Deal, a nonprofit started by a bakery owner and a tech CEO to put restaurant employees back to work by making meals for those in need. Its funneled millions of dollars back into the restaurant industry while helping feed vulnerable communities. 

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An explosion of parklets

San Francisco, with its tiny real estate options, never had a ton of outdoor dining (a real bummer given the excellent year-round weather). That all changed in 2020, when the city lifted restrictions through the Shared Spaces Program, allowing restaurants to build parklets in place of parking spaces. Now, more than 1,700 parklets line the city streets, each with its own personality: some wooden, others painted in murals, and many fully decked out with roofs and heat lamps. Many of SF’s busiest streets now feel like one big outdoor party, and given their success, the city has voted to keep them around permanently.

An open embrace for the cannabis industry
Photograph: Courtesy Urbana

An open embrace for the cannabis industry

Ever since recreational marijuana became legal in California in 2018, the number of dispensaries, lounges and products available in SF has boomed. Thankfully, local government was able to read the room and deemed cannabis an 'essential' business throughout the pandemic. The city has also made an effort to make sure it’s not just the privileged who benefit from the thriving weed industry by launching an equity program that sets aside cannabis permits for people of color and/or those who were negatively impacted by the war on drugs, resulting in cool, new dispensaries like Black-owned Posh Green Cannabis Boutique.

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A tradition of inclusion and social justice

Given its history of activism, it’s not a surprise that San Francisco was one of the most vocal places during last summer’s protests against police brutality and in support of Black lives. And here, young people led the movement: One of the largest protests was organized by then 17-year-old Simone Jacques, who led more than 15,000 people on a march from Mission High School to Dolores Park. Six months later, two other teens, Tiana Day and Mimi Zoila, shut down one side of the Golden Gate Bridge with a four-mile-long protest. 

A dedication to all things green
Photograph: Courtesy Napa Valley Bike Tours

A dedication to all things green

SF is packed full of parks and greenspaces that allowed residents to sunbathe, picnic, hike, and bask in panoramic views of the bay while adhering to social-distancing rules. (Central Park may get all the glory, but SF's Golden Gate Park is actually larger – and cooler.) And just a short drive away are even more enviable outdoor getaways – wine country, Tahoe, Big Sur, Carmel-by-the-Sea and more – just waiting to be explored. 

Aside from all the green space, SF is also a leader in green planning: The city has banned single-use plastic, boasts an ambitious strategy to combat sea-level rise due to climate change, and has made significant investments in all-electric public transportation. 

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A belief in the power of public art

San Francisco’s art museums are world-renowned, but the city also has a thriving street art scene that’s grown even more prominent during the pandemic. Artists saw boarded-up storefronts as an opportunity to add personality and messages of hope to the city, brightening up the streets with their works. Murals have popped up in every neighborhood, but the new artworks on more than 20 boarded-up shops in the Castro are particularly of note for the diversity of artists and voices used in the project. Now dubbed the Castro Art Project, the neighborhood is working on bringing in even more LGBTQ+, Black, Indigenous and POC artists to leave their mark.  

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