A magic bus trip in San Francisco

Claire Webb celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love with a far out trip to the birthplace of the hippie movement


A colourful vintage bus pulls into Union Square, in San Francisco’s shopping district. It looks ludicrously out of place amid the upmarket department stores and groomed shoppers, and so does the woman who jumps out wearing a flowery headband, heart-shaped sunglasses and an embroidered waistcoat. “My name is Serene Rain and this will be a journey of transformation,” she promises.


The Magic Bus Experience is one of dozens of tours and exhibitions marking the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, when 100,000 young hippies flocked to San Francisco in search of a utopia of music and LSD. This Dionysian gathering would revolutionise America, ushering in social and sexual liberation.


The Magic Bus in Union Square

On the bus, Serene Rain hands out flowers and 3D glasses that make the psychedelic decor pop out, and encourages every passenger to choose a hippy name (later I discover she’s an actor and grew up in Liverpool). The blinds on the windows turn into mini cinema screens showing a kaleidoscope of 60s photos and footage. When they’re drawn up, we’re in the middle of Chinatown – the largest outside of Asia and a big influence on the hippy generation, who were hungry for Eastern mysticism.

The bus trundles on to City Lights Books in North Beach, which was the heart of the Beat Generation in the 50s. The Beatniks used to read their work here and the owner was arrested for obscenity after publishing Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl.It’s still an independent bookshop and a fun place to browse, under signs declaring “Free speech zone” and “All characters in bookstore are real not fictitious”.

Next door is Vesuvio Café, where Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac drank and railed against straitlaced society. The Bohemian spirit lives on inside: it’s stuffed with art and the curmudgeonly barman serves a mean cocktail.

When we reach the towering Transamerica Pyramid skyscraper in the Financial District, Serene Rain yells out of the window at an unfortunate businessman: “Run away, get out of the Financial District! Doesn’t he look unhappy?” She’s zen again by the time we reach Market Street, where tens of thousands marched against the war in Vietnam in April 1967, beginning a new era of peaceful protest.


Jimi Hendrix’s old abode, the Red House

The centre of the hippy movement was the working-class neighbourhood of Haight-Ashbury. Five decades on, the colourful clapboard houses are no longer dirt-cheap, but the high street clings to its hippy past: psychedelic shopfronts, vintage shops, organic cafés and would-be rock stars strumming guitars on street corners. Jimi Hendrix lived above the tobacco shop at 1524A Haight Street – painted burgundy and known as the Red House in honour of his song – and is commemorated by two murals.

The Magic Bus’s final stop is Golden Gate Park, a lush oasis that stretches 50 blocks from Haight-Ashbury to Ocean Beach. On 6 October 1966, LSD was outlawed and a Love Pageant Rally was held here in protest; thousands got high and listened to Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. The following January, 20,000 young people piled into Golden Gate’s stadium for the Human Be-In, which was part rally, part music concert, and the catalyst for the Summer of Love.

Nowadays San Francisco is a mecca for yuppies working in Silicon Valley, but Hippie Hill still pulsates with spontaneous drumming on sunny afternoons – just as it did during that extraordinary summer.

Five ways to get your groove on  

1. If the Magic Bus Experience (magicbussf.com) sounds too far out, San Francisco Love Tours also do groovy guided trips on a VW bus with beaded curtains and an orange shag carpet (sanfranciscolovetours.com)

2. Hear how hippies, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll revolutionised the 1960s on the Free Love Movement walking tour (wildsftours.com)

3. The de Young Museum’s Summer of Love exhibition boasts iconic rock posters, photographs, fashion and interactive music and light shows.

4. Start a singalong at San Francisco Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park, which has put pianos in its flower gardens

5. Catch a gig at the Fillmore, which helped launch the careers of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix – and is mentioned in Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

For more information, go to sftravel.com. BBC4 documentary The Summer of Love: How Hippies Changed the World is on Friday 16 June 

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For our full collection of San Francisco holidays, visit radiotimes.com/sanfrancisco